UPDATES & ANALYSIS

6.14

Iowa Supreme Court rejects challenges to collection of fines generated by traffic cameras

by Rox Laird | June 14, 2023

City ordinances in Des Moines and Windsor Heights providing for collection of traffic fines generated by automated traffic enforcement cameras are not unconstitutional government takings, they do not violate due process of law, and they do not amount to illegal property taxes, the Iowa Supreme Court held in two cases handed down June 9.

Cities using Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE) systems issue citations for speeding and stop-light violations captured on fixed cameras that record vehicle license plates. Fines are levied against the vehicle owner, not the driver.

The two cases – Stogdill, et al. v. City of Windsor Heights and Livingood, et al. v. City of Des Moines – initially involved eight plaintiffs who brought more than a dozen claims against the two cities. After the Polk County District Court dismissed all claims against the cities, all three plaintiffs in the Windsor Heights case and two of the plaintiffs in the Des Moines action appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

In its unanimous June 9 rulings written by Justice Christopher McDonald, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court on all but one issue, which was remanded for further action. Justice Edward Mansfield made additional observations about the Des Moines case in a separate concurrence.

In the Windsor Heights decision, the Court held that traffic fines generated by ATE systems are not an illegal property tax.

Appellant Christopher Determan argued Windsor Heights’ ATE ordinance is not related to safety because the city levies fines against the vehicle owner rather than the driver. Meanwhile, Determan argues, the ordinance has generated millions of dollars of revenue for the city. Thus, Determan argues the city ordinance is a de facto “revenue-generating personal property tax.”

The Court disagreed, citing its earlier decisions that defined a tax as “a charge to pay the cost of government without regard to special benefits conferred” and that “taxes are for the primary purpose of raising revenue.”

In the case of Windsor Heights, the Court said, the stated purpose of the city’s ATE system is not to raise revenue but to “reduce speeding violations and traffic collisions, property damage, personal injuries, and deaths; to reshape the motoring behaviors of the community; and to address neighborhood complaints of flagrant violators.” And, the Court said it had earlier concluded that ticketing vehicle owners is a “rational way to advance a municipality’s public safety objectives.”

The Court also held in the Windsor Heights case that collecting ATE fines using the “income tax refund offset program,” through which unpaid traffic fines may be withheld from state income tax refunds, does not violate due process of law.

The Court has previously held that due process requires, among other things, notice and an opportunity to be heard on the issue. In the Windsor Heights case, appellant Alesha Smith was provided with notice and opportunities to be heard, but Smith did not exercise those opportunities in a timely manner. Smith argued the city nonetheless violated her right to due process by referring her account to the income-tax offset program without first obtaining a judgment in district court as provided for in Iowa Code Section 364.22.

The Court disagreed. Although the Court in 2019 in Behm v. City of Cedar Rapids said “no liability arises until the city takes the affirmative step of filing an enforcement action in district court and obtains a judgment against the defendant,” McDonald wrote that the fact that the city referred Smith’s account to the income-tax offset program without first obtaining a judgment does not necessarily establish a due process violation.

Also, in the Livingood decision, the Court held that the income-tax refund offset does not violate the “takings” clause of the Iowa Constitution.

The plaintiffs in Livingood argued Des Moines’ use of the income-tax offset program is an unconstitutional taking under Article I, Section 18, of the Iowa Constitution, which says: “Private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation first being made.”

In a 2000 decision, the Court set out its analysis for deciding takings claims: “(1) Is there a constitutionally protected private property interest at stake? (2) Has this private property interest been ‘taken’ by the government for public use? and (3) If the protected property interest has been taken, has just compensation been paid to the owner?”

While the plaintiffs’ income tax refunds were constitutionally-protected property, McDonald wrote, the city “is not asking the plaintiffs to bear a burden that should be borne by the public as a whole. Instead, the city is collecting penalties allegedly owed for violation of its laws. The government’s collection of money for the payment of fines in the exercise of its police power is not a ‘taking’ for ‘public use’ and does not implicate the takings clause.”

While upholding the trial court’s dismissal of all other counts in the two cases, the Supreme Court held that two sections of the Des Moines Municipal Code regarding collection of ATE fines through the income-tax offset program conflict with and are rendered invalid by Iowa Code section 364.22. Thus, on remand, the District Court “shall enter the appropriate declaratory and injunctive relief in favor of Livingood,” McDonald wrote.

 

 

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