Lawsuits over Cedar Rapids I-380 speed cameras are headed to the Iowa Supreme Court

Photo by Kurt Zenisek

No city in Iowa has made more money from traffic cameras than Cedar Rapids. But two cases challenging the city’s use of traffic cameras on Interstate 380, which were recently accepted for further review by the Iowa Supreme Court, may change that. If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the city may have to refund some of the fines it has collected. It may also face lawsuits for violating the rights of people ticketed because of the cameras.

Since 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.

The city insists the cameras are more about safety than money, and that the interstate cameras are necessary tools. The Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) disagrees. No other state permits the placement of traffic cameras on interstate highways. The department says the cameras can actually create safety problems by causing some highway drivers to suddenly slow down with little warning to the drivers behind them.

IDOT conducted a study of the placement of automated traffic cameras in the state, and concluded that 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 rather than safety needs. In 2015, IDOT ordered cities to turn off cameras located on interstates, and suggested other methods to improve safety be adopted. Cedar Rapids continued using its cameras and joined with two other cities that use cameras on interstates, Des Moines and Muscatine, to request a judicial review of IDOT’s order in hopes of having a judge overturn it. In April, the Polk County judge hearing the case ruled in favor of IDOT. The cities are appealing the decision.

While the appeal is pending, Cedar Rapids is not using the I-380 cameras. According to the Cedar Rapids Police Department (CRPD), this has led to an increase in speeding, and made the S-curve more dangerous. Despite the concerns voiced by the police, CRPD and the Iowa State Patrol told The Gazette in May that neither agency had plans to increase patrols along the S-curve.

In 2015, Maria Leaf received one of the more than 450,000 speeding tickets generated by the cameras on the S-curve. The fine was $75. Leaf disputed the claim that she had been going 13 miles per hour faster than the 55 mph speed limit. (According to the city and Gatso USA, the cameras only snap photos of cars going 12 mph faster than the speed limit.) Leaf challenged the accuracy of the camera. She also argued the way the tickets was issued — relying on an automated system run by the same for-profit business that sends motorists the tickets — and the limited opportunity the city allowed to dispute tickets, violated the due process rights guaranteed by the Iowa Constitution.

Leaf’s first attempt to contest the ticket was during an administrative hearing conducted by phone. It failed. Leaf appealed the decision to a district court, which ruled against her. In February, a state appeals court also rejected Leaf’s arguments. But earlier this month, the Iowa Supreme Court selected Leaf v. City of Cedar Rapids for further review. It also selected Behm v. City of Cedar Rapids, a lawsuit brought by six people who claim the city’s use of speed cameras on the interstate violated their due process rights. Arguments in the cases have not yet been scheduled.

It is unusual for the Iowa Supreme Court to take cases involving relatively minor municipal infractions like speeding tickets. Cedar Rapids even classifies the speed camera tickets as civil fines, so they don’t have an impact on a driver’s record.

The last traffic camera case the court heard was City of Davenport v. Seymour in 2008. In that case, the court ruled that the use of automated traffic cameras by Davenport did not violate due process rights.

Both Leaf and the plaintiffs in the Behm case are represented by Iowa City attorney James Larew.

“Our clients appreciate the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to give further review to their legal challenges to the city’s use of speed cameras on I-380. The legal rights that are implicated here are one that affect every motor vehicle owner whose vehicle travels on the interstate and primary highways in the state of Iowa,” Larew said in a statement provided to Little Village.

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In states where courts have ruled against the use of automated traffic cameras to generate tickets, municipalities have required 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 that the plaintiffs should be able to sue for damages, if the court finds Cedar Rapids has violated their rights.

The Cedar Rapids City Attorney is representing the city in both cases. The City Attorney’s office declined to comment on the case, citing the city’s policy of not commenting on pending litigation.