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Cedar Rapids seizing income tax returns for nonpayment of traffic camera tickets

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Photo by Kurt Zenisek

Cedar Rapids has begun seizing the state tax refunds of people with unpaid tickets from the city’s traffic cameras. In September, the city council voted to send the names and Social Security numbers of people with unpaid traffic camera fines to the Iowa Department of Administrative Service’s offset program.

The offset program is used to collect debts owed to state and local government agencies. It seizes all state payments to an individual — including state tax refunds, lottery winnings and vendor payments — until the debt that was reported has been paid.

Then-mayor Ron Corbett cast the only vote against the city council’s proposal to use the offset program, calling the move “heavy handed.”

No city in Iowa has made more money from traffic cameras than Cedar Rapids. Since Cedar Rapids began using automated traffic cameras in 2010, fines from the cameras have generated $3 million a year for the city’s general fund.

That amount doesn’t represent all the money paid in fines. The cameras were installed and are operated Massachusetts-based Gatso USA, which currently receives 40 percent of fines, as well as other fees. In 2016, Gatso USA earned $2.3 million from the Cedar Rapids cameras.

The city has also handed over its involvement in the offset program to a private contractor, Municipal Collections of America (MCOA). The Illinois-based company receives a fee, the cost of which is tacked onto each ticket it sends to offset program. That fee is equal to 25 percent of the fine.

According to The Gazette, 70,809 individuals with unpaid traffic camera fines have been turned over to the offset program. The city said some of the tickets have gone unpaid since 2010, and the total amount owed is $17 million.

The Gazette found that some people who had received notice that their state income tax return was seized by the offset program claimed they had not received a ticket and could not get more information about the traffic violation they allegedly committed from the city or its contractors.

In 2015, the Iowa Department of Transportation ordered automated traffic cameras located on Iowa interstates shut down, after studying the use of the cameras and concluding the potential problems caused by using speed cameras on interstates outweighed the potential benefits. The agency also concluded that camera placement was often based on maximizing revenue from speeding tickets for cities rather than safety needs.

Since 2010, Cedar Rapids has issued more than 500,000 tickets from automated traffics — a record for any Iowa city — and more than 90 percent of those tickets were generated by the speed cameras located at the winding “S-curve” on I-380.

Cedar Rapids, along with Des Moines and Muscatine, is currently appealing IDOT’s order to shut off the interstate cameras.

The city is also facing three lawsuits over the cameras.

In January, Iowa City attorney James Larew filed a lawsuit on behalf of several motorists seeking to have the city cancel its collection actions over unpaid traffic camera fines. The lawsuit argues that some of the collection actions violate state law, because municipalities are required to begin collection actions within one year of a fine being levied. It also argues that the city cannot impose the 25 percent fee to pay MCOA, if the fee was not in place at the time the violation occurred. More broadly, the lawsuit argues that the process by which motorists can appeal a traffic camera ticket violates the guarantee of due process in the Iowa constitution.

The argument that Cedar Rapids’ use of traffic cameras violates the right to due process is also at the heart of the two lawsuits — Behm v. Cedar Rapids and Cedar Rapids v. Leaf — currently under consideration by Iowa Supreme Court. Larew represents the people suing the city in both cases.

In states where courts have ruled against the use of automated traffic cameras to generate tickets, municipalities have been required to issue refunds. A 2015 ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court required the city of St. Louis to offer $5.6 million in refunds to people who had received tickets from that city’s red-light cameras.

In his filings with the supreme court, Larew argues his clients should be able to sue for damages, if the court finds Cedar Rapids has violated their rights.


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27 thoughts on “Cedar Rapids seizing income tax returns for nonpayment of traffic camera tickets

  1. Ticket camera programs in Iowa are government-run for-profit rackets, not safety programs.

    Speed cameras could be shut down almost instantly if IDOT put in mandatory rules that all main road and highway speed limits had to be set at their safest points, the 85th percentile speed of free flowing traffic under good conditions, rounded to the nearest 5 mph interval.

    Red light cameras could be shut down if IDOT put in mandatory rules that the yellow intervals had to be adequately long for the ACTUAL perception/reaction times and ACTUAL approach speeds of at least 85% of the drivers.

    IDOT refuses to take either action to improve safety and end the ticket camera rackets.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

    1. James — Isn’t the IDOT the good guys in this? I thought they had tried to remove the cameras, and I remember — in Cedar Rapids — they put up extra time to give motorists enough time to slow down before hitting the “S” where the camera snaps you. … ???

  2. Absolutely ridiculous. There are suspicions as to if the cameras are even properly calibrated, often catching people going 10+ miles over the 55 speed limit. Too convenient. I spend as little time in Cedar Rapids as possible, this shameless fight to keep the revenue cameras makes me loathe to even pay for parking. I want them to have zero revenue from Iowans.

  3. Let’s cut the bull, Cedar Rapids. Speed cameras were never about safety but rather you bought a slick sales pitch from an out of state company about how much revenue you could siphon from the people with the least amount of effort. Surprise, now the citizenry is rebelling against your profiteering micro-management of their daily commutes. You had a good run Cedar Rapids and now it’s time to drop this Orwellian assault on the people of this city. This issue errodes away at the morale of our city residents and only hastens their desire to move away.

  4. The state is taki g over $1600.00 tax refund for a $93.00 traffic cam ticket? What kind of bull is this???

  5. What I would like to know is how the city can do this when they are in litigation over the ruling the DOT and Judge gave ordering the cams turned off and or moved as they were in violation of placement. How is it that no one can talk or discus this as it is in litigation but yet they can withhold peoples refund to collect? Ask the DOT https://www.iowadot.gov/aboutus#ContactUs Ask an attorney. The mayor does not return calls. The state Ombudsman can not talk about it as its in litigation yet our city seems to be able to do this. Make sense? Why can they proceed on this? $$$$ Who is paying fo rthis litigation? YOU and Me? Our own taxes! ?? So many questions and no answers.

  6. I would like to know how the City of Cedar Rapids obtained anyone’s SSN to attack state refunds?

    The ticket was assigned all vehicle via the licence plate number. It was not assigned to the driver, Thus how did the SSN information come into the hands of the City of Cedar Rapids. This is direct violation of the Social Security Number Protection Act of 2010.

    If the City of Cedar Rapids shared this information with any collection agency or the company that owns the cameras’ I hope all City Council Members are aware of the consequences of their vote.

  7. How can they take my refund for a citation I never knew I had?? We’ve lived at the same location for 7 years and this citation is nearly 3 years old?? I monitor my credit every month….it’s not there? How can I pay for what I don’t know I owe? How are they able to collect debts over a year old any way?

    Further, how is it legal to share my personally identifiable info without permission? The ticket, is based off my plate number…. my ss# isn’t on my registration or my drivers license… How is it legal for them to not only get my social but then disseminate to another 3rd party?

  8. When is the remainder of the tax refund balance going to be released? How long do they legally have, to release it?

  9. Pretty sad that a system that was meant to seize money from criminals was used to take money from good citizens. Especially when the cameras have been ruled illegal. You know when CR gets their hands on our tax refunds it will never be returned when they are ruled against. Why don’t our state departments talk with each other and put a stop to CR’s money making scheme?

  10. First of all the headline is sloppy. They are seizing REFUNDS not returns. Second, I fully support the use of the speed cameras in Cedar Rapids and elsewhere. Since they’ve been deactivated the drivers around me seem to have greatly increased their speeding. If you’re not speeding you have nothing to worry about from the cameras. The complainers are the ones who want to brazenly speed. They deserve to get tickets.

  11. I received one last February. The interesting part is that I was in Mexico when the cited event occurred and have a customs stamped passport to prove I was away. The picture looks like my vehicle but either the system had an technical or process error or my vehicle was stolen (and return by the time I got back (?)). I protested to the CR police after I received the citation but the denied the claim (and even gave them a copy of the passport). Now my sizable refund is being held up so I guess I will just file a stolen vehicle report (didn’t want to do that) and I assume CR will pay me for lost interest on the refund. Even more concerning is how did the city’s collection agency get my Social Security number?

  12. Nice heavy handed tactic to collect fees from 1 arm to the other. George Orwell anyone. Website dictates states I am responsible for automated enforcement for my vehicle and this is not grounds to appeal. Automated system designed to capture the vehicle information but nothing in regards to whom is driving. Notification happens minimum of weeks later. Whole refund is confiscated even though order of magnitudes greater than the ticket. Private company retains over 40% of the revenue. Come on lawyers, you have a lot to work with here.

  13. To the guy who says that, if you do nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about…. Please move to another country, because you are not well suited to live in my country. I went to war for this country, and I am disgusted that these kinds of weaselly things happen here. They made these civil “violations” so that they didn’t have to do things like prove you are guilty or have a proper chain of custody for evidence, but on the other side they want to treat them like broken laws. Unbelievably weaselly. This is more akin to something you would see in the soviet union than the USA, but here it is in Red CR.

    1. Smed, I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t been through Cedar Rapids since the summer of 2002. Imagine my surprise when I got a ticket in the mail with a picture of my car. To be honest, my high-school age daughter (at the time), with a few friends, took my car to Iowa City to see another friend who had been in a horrific car accident and was transferred there from the Northern Iowa hospital in the area where we live. Who was driving when the camera took the picture? There’s no way to know. I believe my daughter was being honest when she said she wasn’t sure who was driving as they had been without sleep for hours when this “offense” occurred. In a situation with true justice, a police officer would have stopped the vehicle and cited the driver as is proper. But apparently the right to face your accuser no longer applies in this state. Maybe it’s time to move before they seize my house over it.

  14. Per the City’s Municipal Code, the registered owner of the vehicle is liable for camera citations. Your request for appeal has been denied.

    Now that the City’s administrative process has concluded, any recourse you may have would be through the judicial system. We are prohibited from providing any legal advice in that regard.

    Thank you,

    City of Cedar Rapids

    1. Pay very close attention to who you vote for in local elections. Do your research and stop voting based on party affiliation.

  15. We paid our fine months ago. MONTHS! And we just today received a notice. So their bookkeeping is a poor as their authoritarian tactics are despicable. We are also wondering how our SSN becomes attached to a traffic violation, then given to a third party. That’s what I get for loaning my truck.

  16. For one, I have called twice to get this settled and still not reply back in 10 days. They want us to pay to get out state refund but won’t call to get it resolved. What kind of justice is this. First they say it is not mandatory to pay when all this started, then they decide you must pay. make up your mind. All I want to do is pay the fine and get it off my chest. How does one do that when the phone number in the offset letter doesn’t give you that option? Really, how frustrating is that? I have been diagnosed with cancer and been undergoing treatment. I don’t think i need this added burden. Anyone have any ideas?

  17. This is nothing more the liberal big government over reach. What have they done with money they have collected, they sure as hell haven’t fixed the streets in this god forsaken town. My wife and I both have fairly new cars and both have needed front end alignments due all of the pot holes and rough roads. These cameras aren’t about safety it,s about sucking more taxes from the public. What about the people who don’t get tax refunds, are you going to withhold them from getting their drivers license renewed? Every dollar you rob from the general public is one less dollar that can go to support local businesses, taxes like like this hurt the local economy. The city can’t manage their appetite to spend money so they just keep coming back for more from the taxpayers. How about if you cut spending instead stripping more money out of pockets of the people.

  18. Here is my concern: 40% of this money goes to a private entity. The cameras were not owned by the city, they were not placed on city property, the city didn’t maintain the cameras. So how can a municipality collect, and garnish tax returns via an offset action for a private business? Iowa Code 8A.504 is in place only for collecting debts for municipalities and state agencies. Gatso USA has methods through collections, and courts to force collection. The use of the offset action to collect for a partial private debt, I believe, violates the code.

  19. This is not a STATE matter, it’s a CITY matter and these fines which are not even necessarily proven valid, are somehow attached to a SSN now. This is EXTORTION and should be illegal. Class action lawsuit anyone???

  20. Just got an offset notice today. So how long will the tax refund be withheld? My tax return is over 10x the amount of the “fine”. The letter doesn’t detail what I should do if I want my tax return, it only tells me what to do if I want to appeal. So my assumption is that they will take what I owe out of my return. The question is when will I receive the rest of my refund?

  21. Biggest joke ever by any city in the state of Iowa. My ticket was from 4 years ago and I wrote the city of CR a nice note stating that I was not going to drive 4 hours (one way)to appeal a stupid ticket that showed no evidence of who was driving. Just because the vehicle was in my name, I got tagged for the ticket, which is another flaw to Iowa transportation laws.

    2 different credit collections agencies tried to fleece me and I shared with them that IDOT has deemed these red light cameras illegal and under no circumstances was I going to pay. One agency even called me back to state they had verified my story and dropped the collections altogether. So I did the math. I make at least 6-7 trips to Iowa City every year for games, see my daughter, etc. Almost always stay in CR and grab dinner, fill up with gas, stay in a nice hotel, etc. I bet I spend on average $250-$300 every time I go through CR. Because of this nice little stunt, I WILL NOT SPEND ONE MORE DIME in that city!!

    So you can have my $93, but guess what you will lose $1500-$2,000 annually. That is what you guys get for electing an attorney for your mayor!

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