6/26/2009Washington Ticket Cameras Under Legal Siege
A pair of class action lawsuits proposed against cities in Washington that use photo enforcement.
A trio of powerhouse lawfirms are taking on nearly all the cities in Washington state that employ red light cameras and speed cameras. The firm Williamson and Williams struck first by filing a proposed class action suit on Tuesday against nineteen cities. The firm's primary claim is that the $124 fines imposed on clients violated a state law specifying that automated tickets "shall not exceed the amount of a fine issued for other parking infractions within the jurisdiction." General parking fines are between $25 and $50 in each jurisdiction.
City officials insist that the law allows them to charge the amount of special fines such as parking in a handicapped space. Seattle has 105 types of parking violations that merit $45 fines. Just two merit an amount in excess of $124.
Yesterday, the Rosen Firm joined with Breskin, Johnson and Townsend in launching a second proposed class action suit against twenty cities plus Australia's Redflex Traffic Systems and American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the companies that run the photo programs. Although the Rosen suit argues the fine amounts are excessive, the firm's centerpiece argument is that the cities employed illegal "cost neutral" contracts with Redflex and ATS.
"State law requires that the cities pay the vendors of these cameras only based on the value of the equipment and services provided, and it prohibited the cities from paying such vendors based on revenue generated by the cameras so as to not induce improper activities by the vendor," the lawsuit states, citing RCW 46.63.170.
Sultan City, which is not named in either lawsuit, explained a proposed cost neutrality arrangement in the following terms.
"Notwithstanding the fixed fee provisions provided herein to the contrary, Redflex assures the customer that the programs provided hereby shall be cost neutral to customer," a city memo dated June 28, 2007 explained. "The maximum compensation that customer shall be obligated to pay to Redflex each month is the fixed fee or the gross revenue received by the customer from paid violations, whichever is less."
The Rosen suit cited a California appellate case (view ruling) in arguing that cost neutrality arrangements violated the legislature's intention to eliminate the financial incentive for vendors and cities to issue more tickets.
The Rosen suit also goes after the cities of Bellevue, Fife, Lynnwood, Monroe and Renton for failing to obtain the legally required approval from the state Administrative Office of the Courts for infraction forms. Auburn, Lakewood and SeaTac actually used forms that were rejected by the court.
"According to state law, a traffic infraction case does not begin, and there is no presumption that an infraction was committed, until a ticket on an approved form is issued by a police officer," the suit argues. "Despite this violation of state law, the cities and the two camera companies have been improperly collecting and splitting millions of dollars by mailing out what amounts to fake tickets."
The issue is more than a technicality, as the cities of Fife and SeaTac deliberately omitted mention that accused vehicle owners could file a declaration of nonresponsibility under state law. The firm also argued that the state's presumption that the owner of a photographed vehicle is the driver responsible for the offense impermissibly shifts the burden of proof to the defendant, in violation of state and federal due process rights.
The cities of Auburn, Bremerton, Burien, Federal Way, Fife, Issaquah, Lacey, Lake Forest Park, Lakewood, Lynnwood, Monroe, Moses Lake, Puyallup, Renton, SeaTac, Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma are parties to both suits. The Rosen firm added Bellevue and Wenatchee to the list. The Williamson suit targeted Bonney Lake over tickets the city issued before shutting down its camera program.