DES MOINES, Iowa — An Iowa woman who says she was wrongly ticketed by an automated traffic camera when she wasn't speeding has accomplished the unusual feat of getting the state Supreme Court to consider her $75 small-claims case.
For Marla Leaf, 67, it's not about money, but about constitutional rights. Her attorney, James Larew, argued Wednesday that the city of Cedar Rapids, where Leaf lives and was ticketed, is violating equal protection and due process clauses of the Iowa Constitution in part because it delegates police power to Gatso USA — the private, for-profit company hired to run the equipment.
Leaf said she pursued the case all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court for a simple reason: She's not guilty. Given her experience, she also questioned whether Cedar Rapids' system is fair to motorists.
"Why should I pay for a ticket I didn't do," she asked after the hearing. "Why should others have to pay for tickets they didn't do?"
Leaf's case, which the Iowa Supreme Court combined with another case with similar arguments involving six vehicle owners, is unusual because small claims rarely make it to the state's highest court.
"It shows that what seems sometimes like the smallest case can actually involve really major issues," said Drake University law professor Mark Kende.
Such cases are closely watched by other communities with automated traffic equipment, much of which is run by private companies. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says 142 communities in the United States use automated speed camera systems and 420 have automated red light cameras.
Leaf was driving her Ford Mustang home from an eye doctor's appointment on Feb. 5, 2015, when the automated speed camera system on Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids clocked her at 68 mph (109 kph) in a 55 mph (89 kph) zone. She recalls the roads were icy and she was driving so slowly that cars were passing her on both sides. Leaf, who had never had a speeding ticket, insists she was traveling between 50 and 55.
Cases involving traffic cameras have been appealed before to federal and state courts on various constitutional grounds, but it's unusual for the Iowa Supreme Court to take a case already considered once on appeal. The cases heard Wednesday were assigned to the Iowa Court of Appeals last year and in February the court ruled in favor of the city. Leaf and the other ticketed vehicle owners sought and were granted further review from the Supreme Court.
One of their arguments is based on the fact that semitrailers and government vehicles are not ticketed by the automated Cedar Rapids interstate cameras. Larew claims in court documents that it's "clearly arbitrary and unreasonable."
Patricia Kropf, an attorney for the city, contends that doesn't matter.
"Incremental problem solving or under inclusiveness does not make an ordinance unconstitutional," she argued in court documents.
Another argument centers on a requirement that citations be appealed to a city administrative hearing officer, which in Leaf's case was the son of a police officer. Larew alleges that denies people of their right under state law to appeal directly to a magistrate or district court judge.
But Kropf pointed out that the ticketed vehicle owners obviously have had the opportunity to appeal to the courts.
Several justices seemed skeptical about the city's contentions, especially regarding whether it was clear to ticketed motorists that they could appeal their fines through the court system and why semitrailers weren't ticketed.
Kropf noted the citation sent to motorists that outlined their options now has been changed to add clarity.
"Hindsight is 20-20," she told the justices.
Larew said the case also raises fundamental questions about whether the city can impose fines on people driving on a federal interstate highway. Iowa is the only state to allow automated speed cameras on interstates.
The Iowa Department of Transportation ordered the speed cameras removed a year before Leaf was ticketed in February 2015, but Cedar Rapids has been allowed to keep then while it appeals. The state agency requires speed cameras to be at least 1,000 feet (300 meters) from a posted speed reduction, but Larew said the camera is 896 feet (273 meters) beyond a sign that reduces the speed limit from 60 mph (97 kph) to 55 mph (89 kph).
It likely will be several months before the court makes a decision.