Future of speeding cameras at stake in Iowa Supreme Court case

If you are bothered by the idea of the government selling the law enforcement prerogatives of citing and collecting fines from automobile drivers, then you want to pay attention to a Supreme Court case in the state of Iowa to be argued in that court's impressive Des Moines building next week.

Merrit Kennedy writes for NPR:

A dispute over a $75 speeding ticket has climbed through the levels of Iowa's court system, reaching the lofty heights of the Iowa Supreme Court for oral arguments.

Marla Leaf got a speeding ticket because a camera allegedly caught her driving 68 mph in a 55-mph zone on an interstate freeway through the city of Cedar Rapids in February 2015.

It's not typical for the state's top court to hear small-claims cases. But in her case against the city of Cedar Rapids, Leaf argues that her constitutional rights and state law were violated because the city delegated police powers to the private company that maintains the speed cameras.

There are actually a number of arguments being advanced:

At various levels of Iowa's court system over more than two years, Leaf has said she believes she was not speeding, especially because of slippery road conditions that day. The cameras are triggered if they record speeds of more than 12 miles over the speed limit.


[Leaf's attorney]said the cameras don't issue tickets to semitrailers and government vehicles, calling the discrepancy arbitrary and a violation of equal protection.

The camera system works by focusing on back license plates, which government vehicles do not have in Iowa. Patricia Kropf, an attorney for the city, told the court that the excluded vehicles are "just not in the database that we need to use to do this in a cost-effective manner."

But it is the delegation of police powers that appears to be the heart:

Leaf's case argues that it is unlawful to give the authority to assess speeding – something it says is police work – to the private camera company, Gatso.

Can the assessment of a municipal violation be done, Larew asked, "by the police department appointing a friend of theirs to serve as a hearing officer?"

Lower Iowa courts have been satisfied that the system is constitutional because it is the police department – and not the private company – that ultimately makes the decision to issue a speeding ticket.

"There is never a citation issued that does not get reviewed and approved by a police officer," Gatso attorney Paul Burns told the justices. According to court documents, Gatso receives $25 per citation.

I have two sources of worry over this sort of thing.  One is the rapidly growing pervasiveness of surveillance, and its linkage to fines or other forms of punishment from state authorities.  If the state is always watching us and punishing us for behavior it forbids, a nightmare has arrived.

But the other relates to the wisdom of selling off taxation powers.  These fines are a tax, after all, and the company that bought them needs to maximize them.  This is a form of tax farming, a very dangerous system of raising state revenues.  I'd rather leave law enforcement and tax collections to employees of the state who don't personally benefit from increasing the take.

If Iowa sets a precedent, other states may pay attention.