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Response from the city on the red light camera ruling

Previously, I wrote that I had asked the city about the possibility of appealing the ruling in the red light camera lawsuit. I received the following response from the Mayor’s office yesterday:

This was what’s known as an interlocutory order from the judge. As such, we are required to seek permission from the district court and the 5th circuit to appeal. We have 30 days to do that. It is still under review.

So there you have it. Here’s a definition of interlocutory order for those of you, like me, who lack a law degree. And in case you’re wondering, I still have not received an email from George Hittner.

Meanwhile, this Chron editorial urges the city to turn the cameras back on.

The city and the contractor are currently facing off in court over the terms for severing their contract, which runs through 2014. Although 53 percent of voters rejected the camera system in November and the cameras were turned off soon after, Judge Lynn Hughes issued an opinion that the election violated the city charter requirement that such challenges be mounted within 30 days of the passage of an ordinance. Although the petitioners had claimed their initiative was a city charter amendment, the judge found that in fact it was an illegal repeal of an ordinance six years after the deadline had passed.

He had critical words for Mayor Parker and City Council members who voted to schedule the election. “Presented with this mislabeling,” wrote Hughes in his opinion, “the council supinely ignored — over the voices of some of its members – their responsibility and put the proposition to the voters as an amendment to the charter.”

Even though she is a strong supporter of red-light cameras, Mayor Parker, backed by City Attorney David Feldman, had insisted that the council had an “absolute sworn duty” to put the camera ban on the ballot. If Judge Hughes is right, they were wrong.

District C Councilmember Anne Clutterbuck was the only official to vote against scheduling the election. At the time, she declared, “Items like this don’t belong in the city charter. Otherwise, we would be like California …anything we vote on at this table could be overturned by petition.” Clutterbuck says she still supports the cameras, but to turn them back on now would “be a violation of the will of the people.”

We disagree. The election violated the will of the people as expressed in the city charter. If this result stands, it will set a precedent that would allow activist groups to attempt to overturn any long-standing city ordinance they choose, in the process potentially violating contracts that could cost the city millions of dollars.

This is the crux of the matter. You have a decisive election that never should have been allowed to take place. I can’t dismiss what the voters said, but I have a hard time accepting it. CM Clutterbuck was right – this is not how we run our city. Yet I disagree with the Chron and agree with Campos that none of the people who voted on this, who thought they were deciding the cameras’ fate, gave any thought to the legal niceties. Whether we accept the result of the election or not we’re setting a precedent that I don’t like. I hate to say it, because I’d rather keep the cameras, but the best solution is likely to be a negotiated settlement with ATS. I don’t envy the Mayor and Council the decisions they have to make.

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6 Comments

  1. Thanks again for the good work Charles. The history of the higher courts is they construe the statutes liberally in favor of the voter. There is a very good chance that a higher court would vacate Hughes’ decision. Considering the COH did not directly say they are working on an appeal coupled with the quote from Parker saying she agrees with the ruling it doesn’t indicate to me that the COH is seriously even considering an appeal. It looks like the city’s will to defend the election that they had when they initiated this suit has somewhat diminished.

    The thing I find interesting about the chron editorial is that they had to ignore their own front page article about accidents declining 16% after the cameras were shut off. Instead they cited ATS’s data. In other words their editors prefered the publication of data from the company with a history of manufacturing stats over their own reporting. How often does that happen?

  2. You also may be interested in knowing what is happening around the nation with this issue. There are some pretty interesting developments in LA. The police commission voted 5-0 to discontinue their contract with ATS which is set to expire in July, the council has not had enough votes to overturn the election. Part of their opposition is the fact that ATS is an Arizona company and they have implemented an Arizona boycott. One councilman indiacted that ATS may move their headquarters out of Arizona in order to try to save the contract.

    5 petitions have been filed in Washington state against the cameras, the state supremes have heard an election challenge to one petition set up by the ATS front group. If you look up the video on the court hearing it is very enlightening. The indications are that the supremes will uphold the election in Mukilteo. This would provide more ammunition to the COH in an appeal.

    http://www.thenewspaper.com/news/35/3514.asp

  3. Shadowguv says:

    Oh my goodness Kuff!

    The City of Houston started this mess as it’s against state law to issue a criminal citation for a violation captured with a camera. If supporters don’t like it then they should organize and lobby the Texas Legislature to change the law. It’s also illegal to report the “fine” to a credit agency, and there is no due process because it’s not a criminal matter. The people of Texas have already spoken on this issue, but alas, our City Officials seem to know better.

    Just because they mail the “notice of violation” letter on Houston Police letterhead, and inform violators that “you or your legal counsel must appear in court on or before…”, doesn’t mean it’s a criminal matter. They could just as easily have Parks and Recreation staff handling the paperwork.

    1. It’s not a municipal court citation. It’s a request for payment.
    2. You are not appearing in a court with any judicial jurisdiction. Hence no judicial appeal.
    3. There is no practical, legal recourse against a vehicle owner for non payment. None.

    So, since it’s illegal to charge a driver with a crime for red light violations (when using a camera only) the City created a work around. They made it appear that it’s a criminal matter, setting a civil penalty that looks like a ticket, smells like a ticket, and they wish was a ticket, but is no such thing.

    It’s already illegal run a red light. Everyone believes that drivers who do so should be punished. HPD should do so by taking the Officers who look at the pictures and deploying them in pairs to enforce our existing criminal code for red light violations.

    In the mean time supporters of cameras should visit the Texas legislature and work to change the existing statute if they desire. It should be noted that RLCs have never survived a public vote. Never.

  4. byron schirmbeck says:

    appreciate your entusiasm shadow, but that isn’t 100% correct. Initially the AG ruled that municipalites could not impose a different penalty than state law mandates when they initialy asked for a ruling. The spirit of that ruling, in my view, is being violated. So what happened was Senator Harper Brown, (who is currently undergoing an ethics charge for riding around in a benz paid for by camera company money from her husband’s business) slipped in language in an unrelated bill that allowed municipalites to impose a civil penalty under their home rule charter. They get around it by not actually accusing you of violating state law against running a red light, but of violating a city ordinance. When the generally anti camera house found out they took steps to remove the language but a parliamentary trick by the senate got it through without proper voting proceedures. Their answer was to write transportation code 707 which does authorize a civil penalty, (which makes it legal) along with all of the restrictions about giving half to the state, yellow change intervals and other restrictions. Just want the whole story to get out there. You can read the details on it here http://www.thenewspaper.com/news/31/3189.asp

  5. Shadowguv says:

    @Byron:

    Good background information on the process. Indeed, it’s perfectly legal for the City to demand that the owner of a vehicle pay a civil fee, but as noted there is no practical legal recourse for not doing so.

    Notice that everyone uses the term “ticket” when it’s no such thing. Of course most people think that failure to pay will result in a bench warrant and jail. That’s what Officials want them to think. Ridiculous.

    Cheers!

  6. […] here for the discussion of “interlocutory”. I will simply note that the judge’s ruling […]