DES MOINES - An attorney for the city of Des Moines on Thursday found herself defending the notices sent to drivers cited by speed cameras against tough questioning from Iowa Supreme Court justices who found the tickets to be misleading and confusing.
"Is the language perfect? I would say, no, it is not perfect," attorney Michelle Mackel-Wiederanders told Justice Brent Appel, who took issue with "wrong information" in the notices regarding administrative hearing judgments and the specter of getting "collection hounds on you" for not paying the $65 fine.
"I think the wording could have been and, if I could go back and rewrite the notice, I certainly would make it easier," said Mackel-Wiederanders. But she challenged litigants' contention the confusing nature of the notices constitutes a due-process violation.
Thursday's exchange came during a hearing in which the seven justices heard oral arguments in Reuven Weizberg et al v. the city of Des Moines and Gatso USA, a traffic camera vendor that works with Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. At issue in the class-action lawsuit is a contention Des Moines' process for collecting traffic tickets issued by its automated enforcement program violates an individual's due-process rights.
Several justices took issue with provisions of the notices mailed to drivers indicating the ticket was a judgment and part of a final administrative decision while glossing over language informing the recipient the matter could be appealed directly to district court at a higher expense if so desired.
"It's just a lot going on here in a couple paragraphs, and it seems like it could have been explained pretty clear to people just what their options are and how you can navigate through the system," Chief Justice Mark Cady said.
Cady said there was no requirement to go through the administrative proceeding as the notice implied, but rather an accused violator could go "right to court." Justice David Wiggins noted the "subjective intent" of the notices seemed to drive people toward the "city's preferred way" of adjudicating the infractions.
Mackel-Wiederanders said it was in the "best interests" of citizens and the city to avoid litigation, telling the justices "we believe that this process is fair and appropriate" in seeking the dismissal of an adverse lower-court ruling that found the procedures to be a due-process violation.
James Larew, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the city's form was intended to discourage appeals that would "challenge the regime."
"What we think is that 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 which was inconsistent with the General Assembly," he said.
"I think they found it just to be too costly for their own purpose, which is generating revenue," added Larew, who also challenged a city exemption of semitrailers from being ticketed by the cameras as an equal-protection violation.
The justices resubmitted the Des Moines case along with two separate cases involving traffic cameras in Cedar Rapids.