7/19/2019Federal Appeals Court Rescues Red Light Camera Lawsuit
Eleventh Circuit US Court of Appeals revives challenge to Alabama red light cameras under state law while rejecting federal claims.
A lawsuit challenging the red light camera program in Alabama should not have been thrown out by a lower court judge. The Eleventh Circuit US Court of Appeals on Thursday sent the case back to the trial court to rule on state law issues after the three-judge appellate panel rejected all of the claims made under federal law.
Alabama has no statewide law that authorizes the use of red light cameras or speed cameras. Instead, Brantley, Center Point, Midfield, Montgomery, Opelika, Phenix City, Selma and Tuscaloosa each lobbied the state legislature to grant individual permission to set up cameras through local laws (the legislature revoked Montgomery's permission in 2016).
These local laws converted moving violations into civil infractions, thus removing a number of due process protections -- a move that attorney George W. Walker III argued was in violation of the state constitution. The class action suit targeted Phenix City, which allows the Australian vendor Redflex Traffic Systems to issue $100 automated tickets at intersections.
Motorists Thomas F. Worthy received a Redflex citation in the mail, which he attempted to fight at a city-run "administrative hearing." He was not willing to pay the $279 required to appeal his being found liable to the circuit court. Instead of paying Phenix City, Worthy sued. Redflex and the city insisted Worthy's failure to exhaust all legal options barred them from filing suit, but the appellate panel disagreed.
"Appellants are not asserting that the process they received under the ordinance was constitutionally deficient because of some error, but rather that the ordinance itself is constitutionally deficient as a whole because of the procedures -- or lack thereof -- that it provides," Judge John Antoon II wrote for the court. "Because appellants are challenging the ordinance as a whole -- and not just the procedures it provides -- they have standing to bring their claims for damages."
Those claims, however, cannot be federal ones. The appellate judges reasoned that the state legislature explicitly decided to impose a civil fine with photo tickets, and the punishment imposed is less severe than a criminal traffic conviction. As a civil matter, the court found the "temporary filing fee" of $279 to challenge a ticket in court was not significant enough to constitute a due process violation.
The appellate panel, however, overruled the district court which had dismissed the case in its entirely. The judges sent the case back to the district court to consider the claims made under state law.