Iowa Supreme Court Deliberating Future of Traffic Cam Appeal Process in Des Moines

DES MOINES, Iowa  --  The Iowa Supreme Court is considering another challenge to Des Moines' automated traffic camera system, this one focused on the appeal process used to contest speeding tickets.

The City of Des Moines is appealing a lower court ruling that found the city is violating the constitutional due process rights of Iowans by offering them a way to challenge tickets through an administrative process as well as in District Court.  A lower court ruled the administrative process used by the city is not defined by city code and therefore is illegal.

A class action lawsuit was filed against the city by a group of speeding violators.  On Thursday their attorney, James Larew, argued the city is using the administrative law process to quickly and cheaply dismiss traffic tickets in the name of increasing profits.  "What we think is the city having invented a municipal infraction process by ordinance consistent with Iowa law found it to be inconvenient, found due process to be too expensive, wanted to have a high velocity prosecution system," Larew argued in court.

The City of Des Moines argues their intent is to make the process easier and cheaper for both parties, the city and the speeder.  "We are interested in allowing citizens to voice their complaints as often as possible," attorney Michelle Mackel-Wiederanders argued for the city, "We want to avoid getting into litigation with citizens if we can avoid it."

The civil fine for a speeding ticket issued by an ATE (automated traffice enforcement device) is $65.  To challenge a ticket in court a defended must pay an $85 dollar fee, more than double the cost of the original fine.  Justice Thomas Waterman asked Larew if eliminating the administrative process is a disservice to Iowans since they would be forced to pay the court fee whether they win or lose their appeal.  Larew says that fee is a price Iowans and politicians should be forced to pay.

"The answer is yes," Larew said when asked if it was worth the extra cost, "It's costly to have a system of municipal infraction enforcement that fully protects the rights of citizens. If citizens aren't willing to pay for that they have the ability to express themselves politically."  That political expression would include voting out Des Moines City Councilmembers who support the cameras.  Larew says the majority of tickets issued are to out-of-town drivers who can't vote in Des Moines elections.

The justices are also considering whether or not the appeal process laid out on the tickets is too confusing.  They challenged the word "judgement" being used on the tickets when no actual judgement entered by a court has been made.  Mackel-Wiederanders says she agrees the wording on the tickets could be better, but the majority of Iowans have no problem understanding it.  "The reality is that people do that so its not so mystifying that people don't find themeselves in the district court process," she says.

The City of Des Moines turned its speed camera back on in June after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the Iowa DOT unlawfully imposed rules banning it.  7,000 citations were issued in the first month after the camera was reactivated.