3/16/2017Texas Appeals Court Slams Houston For Refusing Camera Document Request
Texas Court of Appeals says Houston is on the hook for legal bills in battle over red light camera records.
The ten-year battle that led to the end of red light camera ticketing in Houston, Texas may finally be nearing an end. Wednesday was the deadline for the city to file a challenge to the February 28 Court of Appeals ruling that ordered the city to reimburse civil rights attorney Randall L. Kallinen for expenses he incurred fighting for release of documents related to the city's now-defunct photo ticketing program.
"A trip to the Texas Supreme Court -- the city lost -- and two mayors later, the city is still using taxpayer money battling this case," Kallinen told TheNewspaper in an email.
In 2008, Kallinen and his client, Paul Kubosh, asked the city to provide a draft study on red light cameras that it had commissioned from Rice University Professor Robert Stein, a draft of which was believed to contain clear evidence that the cameras increased accidents. The city dug in its heels and refused to hand over any of the 208 documents that Kubosh and Kallinen requested to shed light on the camera program in advance of the 2010 red light camera referendum in which a majority of city voters ultimately chose to outlaw automated ticketing machines.
Although the cameras came down, the legal battle continued to rage behind the scenes. A trial court judge ordered the release of the documents, but the city appealed. The Court of Appeals sided with Houston, but the state Supreme Court in 2015 insisted the city was trying to exploit a "loophole" to suppress information from the press and public (view ruling). Despite the rebuke, Houston did not back down.
"The message from the city is clear: 'If we do not want you get embarrassing public records, you won't get them,'" Kallinen said.
The issue before the three-judge appellate panel was whether Kallinen was entitled to compensation for the $92,176 in legal expenses he racked up during the drawn-out litigation. Under Texas law, anyone who "substantially prevails" in a public records lawsuit is entitled to attorney's fees. Houston came up with another loophole in an attempt to evade responsibility for paying. Just before the trial judge signed the final order forcing release of the documents, the city "voluntarily" provided them to Kallinen, making the award of attorney's fees impossible because it ended the case. The three-judge appellate panel did not buy that argument and instead insisted that the awarding of fees by the trial judge was entirely consistent with the law.
"The trial court ordered the city to produce documents that it withheld, and it incorporated this order into its final judgment. It reasonably could have concluded that the Kallinen substantially prevailed," Justice Jane Bland wrote for the appellate panel. "The city has not demonstrated that the trial court abused its discretion on this basis."
Kallinen believes the city will keep appealing the case. A copy of the latest ruling is available in a 350k PDF file at the source link below.