The constitutionality of speed cameras is a matter for the courts. And, to that end, Iowa Legislature should pump the brakes until Iowa Supreme Court offers legal clarity.
But impulse is driving premature action in Des Moines. Dueling bills are rocketing through the House and Senate, with an outright ban gaining steam. Traffic cameras make for interesting bedfellows, indeed. The Democratic-backed version, which would merely impose new regulations on local use of traffic cameras, has the support of the Republican atop the House Transportation Committee, Gary Carlson, R-Muscatine. Meanwhile, ACLU of Iowa, has backed an outright ban pushed by Sen. Braud Zaun, a libertarian-bent Republican from Urbandale.
The issue divides this editorial board, too.
Add to that poll after poll showing a general distaste among Iowans for traffic cameras and the entire issue becomes a complete political morass.
But, in the coming months, Iowa Supreme Court is set to render a decision on traffic cameras in Cedar Rapids, Iowa's poster-child for abusing the camera system to stuff its coffers. And it would be knee-jerk for lawmakers to act until the state's top court weighs in.
Driver Marla Leaf says she could afford the the $75 speeding ticket she received in the mail in 2015. But Cedar Rapids doesn't ticket tractor-trailers or government vehicles flying past its speed trap. Nor did the city make clear that alleged speeders could appeal in local court, instead emphasizing an administrative process that, Leaf's attorneys argued in September, are clearly biased toward the city's interest.
The long and short, Leaf contends, is that cities, including Davenport, have handed police powers to the private firms that manage these systems. In so doing, they've undercut the bedrock constitutional principles of equal protection and due process.
The very fact that Iowa Supreme Court took the case speaks volumes. Listening to the pointed questions justices aimed at Cedar Rapids' attorney, Patricia Kropf, only strengthens suspicions that the court might, at the very least, split the baby and impose new regulations, either locally or sweeping, from the bench. Of course, justices could simply side with preceding appeals court rulings in favor of the city. They could also issue a striking blow against the entire network of speed cameras throughout Iowa, including those in Davenport and Muscatine.
There's loosely related precedent, too, for supporters of both bills in Iowa Legislature to let the issue fully bake in the courts. Ohio, like Iowa, is a home-rule state. And, last year, Ohio's Supreme Court concluded that the state Legislature violated Dayton's home-rule when, facing similar questions about the constitutionality of traffic cameras, lawmakers imposed strict new rules on local governments.
The Ohio ruling would have no direct legal bearing on Iowa. But it's possible, perhaps likely, the handful of cities in Iowa with traffic camera programs would follow in Dayton's footsteps and file suit.
Traffic cameras are divisive and legally complex. Their very existence poses questions about safety, traffic enforcement as a means of revenue generation and citizens' rights. Pile on top the all-over-the-map research about traffic cameras' effectiveness in improving safety, and it's right now impossible to wholly support either bill in Iowa Legislature prior to a ruling in Iowa Supreme Court.
What is true is that certain cities — looking at you, Cedar Rapids — have twisted a technology, pitched as a mechanism for improving highway safety, into an indefensible cash grab.
But the overarching constitutional questions that remain are now working their way through the courts. And any decision in the Legislature would be nothing short of misinformed if made prior to Iowa Supreme Court's pending ruling.