May 18, 2011 UPDATE: It is with regret that we post this update on the traffic infraction lawsuit.
On March 31, 2011, the Ninth Circuit denied the plaintiffs’ appeal and affirmed Judge Coughneour’s dismissal of the lawsuit. After considerable research and discussion, the team of plaintiff counsel filed a “Petition for En Banc Hearing” on April 14, 2011. This was a request for a larger group of judges review the decision of the three-judge panel which dismissed our appeal. On May 13, 2011, this request for an additional review was officially denied. Thus, after two years of work, this lawsuit is ended. We are of course disappointed, and frustrated that, unless the next Legislature clarifies (or changes) the law, the cameras continue to be used without the protections and limits that the Legislature intended.
We feel that there was a class of persons with fair and viable claims against both the cities and the camera companies. We presented these issues vigorously and thoroughly. We regret that we did not succeed. We appreciate the team efforts of all plaintiff counsel, and acknowledge the substantial contributions of fellow plaintiff attorneys: Edith A. Bowler (Bowler Law Office, PLLC), Kim Williams & Rob Williamson (Williams & Williamson, PLLC), David Breskin & Dan Johnson (Breskin, Johnson & Townsend, PLLC).
Please note that this firm does not handle challenges of individual automated traffic safety camera tickets.
History of the lawsuit: Robertson Law, PLLC has been involved in an extensive class action lawsuit which was originally filed in the summer of 2009, challenging the issuance of thousands of unlawful automated traffic camera infractions throughout Washington. This lawsuit was brought in conjunction with several other excellent plaintiff attorneys mentioned above.
After filing in King County Superior Court, the extensive lawsuit against two nationally known traffic camera companies and over 20 Washington cities was removed to federal jurisdiction in the Western District of Washington. After extensive briefing, the district court judge granted a preliminary motion by the defendants to dismiss the lawsuit. This decision was appealed before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The case was entitled Michael Todd, et al. v. City of Auburn, et al., District Court case No. C09-1232JCC (Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals No. 10-35222).
Background: In 2005, Washington State passed RCW 46.63.170 which authorized cities to use “Automatic Traffic Safety Cameras” such as red-light and school zone cameras to issue traffic tickets. Several cities began using these cameras to cite drivers for violations of the traffic code. 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. State law also provides that the fines for camera traffic tickets cannot exceed the amount of fines for parking tickets in each city. Finally, State law requires that the cities obtain the approval of the Washington State Supreme Court’s administrative agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts, for their proposed infraction form before putting them into use.
All current contracts for traffic cameras throughout Washington involve a city hiring one of two private companies to run the camera programs: Redflex Traffic Systems or American Traffic Solutions. Collectively, these companies issue tens of thousands of red light and automated radar tickets per month. In most jurisdictions these companies literally issue the tickets and collect the fines: they superimpose the electronic signature of a City law enforcement officer or official, they print notices of infraction at their out-of-state offices, they mail the tickets to the alleged violators, and they collect the payments at an address located outside Washington.
Although State law dictates that the fine for a camera ticket cannot exceed the fine for “other parking infractions” in each city, almost all of the cities involved have set the fine amount for a camera ticket at a much higher level than city parking tickets. Most of the cities have set standard parking fines at between $25.00 and $50.00. (For example, Seattle Municipal Code 11.31.121 sets the fine for 105 parking infractions under $45.00, and the fine for just two parking infractions at $250.00.) However, all the cities have set the fine amounts for red light camera tickets between $101.00 and $124.00, amounts we argued were clearly in excess of the standard parking infraction rate and in violation of State law.
Although State law requires cities to apply for approval of a notice of infraction form before issuing these tickets, not all of the cities did so prior to issuing the tickets. A number of the cities either did not apply for approval of a notice of infraction, and many that applied for approval were rejected. In either case, the Administrative Office of the Courts has never approved of those cities’ use of the “notice of traffic infraction” issued to alleged violators. While all cities have now obtained AOC approval, thousands of unlawful tickets were issued prior to this approval in several cities. It was the position of plaintiff counsel that no infraction cases were actually initiated against each plaintiff in these instances, because an approved ticket form was not used.
Nearly all of the contracts between Redflex Traffic Systems or American Traffic Solutions and Washington cities contain a “cost neutrality” or “stop-loss” clause which we argued was a violation of State law. These clauses state that the cities do not have to pay the vendor companies unless the cities collect more than a certain amount of money each month. It was the position of the plaintiffs that these contracts give the cities and the vendors an illegal incentive to issue improper tickets and to err on the side of issuing a ticket versus declining to issue the ticket. We felt this clearly violated the State law, which was enacted to prevent this exact situation.
Because of the violations described above and several other violations of law, plaintiff counsel asked for several types of relief; including the issuance of a declaratory judgment that the automated ticket system is invalid, along with the issuance of a court order instructing the cities and their camera system vendors to refund all of the money paid in each and every ticket involving an automated traffic safety camera.