The Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Friday that Cedar Rapids’ speed cameras are legal. The decision came in a class action lawsuit that argued the city’s use of speed cameras, and its contracting of a private company that profits from the speeding fines to operate the cameras and issue tickets, violated a driver’s right to due process.
Writing for the court, Justice Brent Appel said due process claims are most important “when fundamental interests are involved,” but there is “no fundamental interest in the right to travel infringed by the ordinance [authorizing the speed cameras].” According to Appel, the use of automated cameras constitutes a “reasonable fit between the government purpose [increasing public safety by reducing speeding] and the means chosen to advance that purpose.”
Appel acknowledged that many people view the cameras as just “speed traps” and even “Orwellian invasions of privacy.”
While we respectfully acknowledge these concerns, this case involves traffic citations with small fines, not the pumping of a resisting person’s stomach. There is no outrageous utilization of physical force; state-sponsored imposition of uncalled-for embarrassment or ridicule; or intolerable, disreputable, and underhanded tactics that may arise from government action deliberately designed to penetrate attorney–client privilege. Cedar Rapids publicly enacted the ATE [automated traffic enforcement] ordinance, and the ATE system is no secret. The City announces the presence of the cameras on the road. The invasion of privacy associated with a system based upon rear license plate photographs is minimal.
Cedar Rapids began using automated cameras to enforce traffic laws in 2010. The cameras have resulted in more than 500,000 tickets being issued — a record for any Iowa city. In 2016 alone, the cameras were responsible for 143,800 tickets. More than 90 percent of those tickets were from the speed cameras on I-380, which are located at the interstate’s winding “S-curve.”
Between 2010 and 2016, tickets from all of Cedar Rapid’s traffic cameras generated more than $3 million a year for the city’s general fund, as well as healthy profits for Gatso USA, the Massachusetts-based company that installed and runs the cameras for the city. Gatso USA had been collecting 32 percent of the total revenue generated by the cameras, as well as other fees. In 2016, its share of the revenue increased to 40 percent. Gatso USA earned $2.3 million in 2016, an increase from its total of $2.1 million in 2015.
No tickets have been issued by the I-380 camera system since April 2017, when a Polk County judge upheld an Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) order banning all speed cameras on the state’s highways. IDOT said that motorists suddenly slowing down because of the presence of speed cameras made highway travel less safe. In April 2018, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned the lower court decision, ruling that IDOT had exceeded its authority.
While the cameras have been inactive, the city has concentrated on collecting fines from tickets that had already been issued. In September 2017, the Cedar Rapids City Council voted to send the names and Social Security numbers of people with unpaid fines to the state’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.
Officials have not yet announced when Cedar Rapids will start using the cameras to issue tickets again.
In its decision on Friday, the Supreme Court also ruled that Cedar Rapids’ use of the cameras did not violate the law by treating local drivers differently. Out-of-state drivers who receive tickets are allowed to file written appeals, but local drivers don’t have that option. Likewise, drivers of commercial big rigs and most government vehicles don’t receive tickets from the cameras, because GATSO’s database doesn’t include information on their license plates. The court found these were minor discrepancies that did not violate local drivers’ right to equal treatment under the law.
There was one issue on which the court did not reach a decision. Plaintiffs claimed Cedar Rapids’ practice of allowing GATSO to calibrate the speed cameras, instead of having a public safety official do it, was illegal. The justices split 3-3 on the issue, so a lower court ruling in favor of Cedar Rapids was allowed to stand.