Worthy v. City of Phenix City: Standing to Challenge the Constitutionality of a City’s Process for Contesting Traffic Citations Issued by Photographic Traffic Signal Enforcement Systems.

Wikimedia Commons, File:Red-light-camera-springfield-ohio.jpg, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (July 17, 2006), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Red-light-camera-springfield-ohio.jpg (photograph of the red light camera system in Springfield, Ohio at the intersection of Limestone and Leffels, photographed on July 17, 2006).

Written By: Harrison R. Jones

Member, The American Journal of Trial Advocacy

On October 6, 2017, the United States Court for the Middle District of Alabama granted the Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1),[1] finding that the Plaintiffs did not have standing to claim a lack of due process because they could not trace any injury back to the City’s process for challenging citations issued by their Photographic Traffic Enforcement System.[2]

Introduction

The City of Phenix City adopted an ordinance in 2012 that allowed automated camera systems to be placed at intersections throughout the city to capture images of drivers running red lights and issue citations to those people.[3] A vehicle owner who is issued a citation for running a red light is required to pay a “civil penalty” of $100.[4]

The ordinance mandates that the notice of violation must inform the recipient about his or her right to dispute the penalty in an administrative adjudication, which must be requested in writing before the City schedules a hearing.[5] Proof of liability for this penalty is determined by a preponderance of the evidence, the burden of proof in civil court, before an unspecified “hearing officer.”[6] Evidence of a violation may be submitted at the hearing through an affidavit where “an officer or employee of the city”[7] can attest to the reliability of the system in writing. Therefore, there is no live witness from the City who could be subjected to cross-examination.[8]

If the vehicle owner is found responsible for the violation at the City’s administration adjudication hearing, he or she will be charged an additional $25 in court costs.[9] However, he or she will have the right to appeal to the Circuit Court of Russell County where a trial, under de novo review, will be held.[10] If it is determined that the appellant is not liable, he or she will no longer have to pay any court costs or penalties.[11]

Each Plaintiff in this case disputed liability for violating the ordinance, and alleged that the City had unjustly enriched itself and violated the constitutional rights of the Plaintiffs by imposing “criminal” fines without providing constitutionally guaranteed protections, particularly the right to cross examine.[12] They further proffered that the burden of proof in these cases should have been proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a higher standard of proof, used in criminal court.[13] They also suggested that the accused should have the right to confront their accusers in court.[14] Based on these contentions, the Plaintiffs argued that they had been deprived of due process and petitioned for relief in the form of damages, attorney fees, and a declaratory judgment to declare the ordinance unconstitutional.[15]

It is important to mention that none of the Plaintiffs in this case actually availed themselves to the full procedure in place to dispute or appeal liability under the ordinance.[16] Therefore, no Plaintiff was exposed to all stages of the procedure in which he or she may have been exonerated.

The Defendants, the City of Phenix City and Redflex Traffic Systems, contended that the complaint should be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) because they lacked standing to assert these claims.[17] The Defendants based that contention on the fact that the Plaintiffs had failed to participate in the very statutory process, which they claimed to be unconstitutional.[18] Defendants further argued that the complaint should have been dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because the City’s procedure is constitutional as a matter of law.[19] However, the Court could not consider the merits of the Plaintiffs’ complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) without first determining if the Plaintiffs had standing to make their claims.[20]

The Court’s Analysis

In addressing whether the Plaintiffs had standing to bring their Due Process claims, the Court first briefly discussed the standards of review for motions to dismiss brought under both Rule 12(b)(6) and 12(b)(1).[21] To survive a 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim Upon Which Relief Can Be Granted, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”[22] Similarly, to survive a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, “the complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to establish federal jurisdiction.”[23] The Court noted that a dismissal for lack of standing has an identical effect as a dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.[24]

According to the Supreme Court in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife,[25] to satisfy the elements of standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, a plaintiff must be able to show: “(1) an injury in fact; (2) a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of; and (3) it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.”[26] The Middle District of Alabama stated that the issue of this case was whether the Plaintiffs could meet the first two elements by showing an injury and a causal connection to conduct attributable to the Defendant.[27]

Although no Eleventh Circuit decisions have addressed the issue, a circuit split exists between the Sixth and Eighth Circuits, as well as lower District Courts across the country. In one Sixth Circuit opinion, Herrada v. City of Detroit,[28] the Plaintiff paid her parking ticket rather than disputing it through the process provided for in the ordinance, and then later brought suit alleging a deprivation of her property without due process.[29] The Court held that the Plaintiff lacked standing to dispute the process of statutorily provided hearings because she chose to pay the fine before attempting to request a hearing.[30]

Several years later, another Sixth Circuit case, Williams v. Redflex Traffic Systems Inc.,[31] involved a camera system like the one in this case and a $50 civil penalty in the event of violation; however, the ordinance provided for a $67.50 non-refundable court processing fee in the event that someone disputes liability.[32] When the Plaintiff brought suit after paying the fine, the District Court dismissed the case for lack of standing; however, upon review, the Sixth Circuit reversed.[33] The Sixth Circuit stated that the court’s reversal was because of the improper nature of the non-refundable court-processing fee, reasoning that no rational person would pay $67.50 to avoid a $50 fine.[34] Despite this reversal, the Sixth Circuit determined that the Plaintiff would not have had standing if not for the non-refundable fee because, without experiencing for herself the very process she was challenging, that process would not have injured her.[35] Several other district courts have agreed with the Sixth Circuit’s approach.[36]

The Eighth Circuit has taken a different approach, holding that plaintiffs do have standing to challenge such procedures, even if they have not attempted to avail themselves to those available statutory procedures.[37] In a 2016 decision, Hughes v. City of Ceder Rapids, Iowa,[38] the Sixth Circuit held that allegations of an inadequate procedure are enough to satisfy the “injury in fact” element of Article III standing.[39]

Conclusion

 The Middle District of Alabama sided with the Sixth Circuit in holding that the Plaintiffs did not have standing to claim a Due Process violation because they did not avail themselves to the process and therefore could not have been injured by that process.[40] The Court reasoned that there was no way to determine if the process would have been adequate without the Plaintiffs experiencing it.[41] Furthermore, the Court noted, “the injury must involve the deprivation of life, liberty, or property. And that injury must then be traceable to the challenged process.”[42]

Finally, the Court articulated that the process provided for in the ordinance does not force citizens to face violating an unconstitutional policy or law.[43] Rather, citizens are obligated to not run red lights regardless of the procedure for contesting liability its constitutionality.[44]

A majority of courts that have considered this issue agree with the aforementioned holding, and could be reasoned to imply that a plaintiff has not suffered an injury through lack of due process without having been personally exposed to that process. This decision will provide guidance to future practitioners and will help to provide some guidance as to who has standing to challenge a municipality’s administrative appeal process for “civil penalties” (i.e., parking and traffic ticket citations). Practitioners may also find this case to be persuasive when contesting liability under other ordinances such as littering laws and noise ordinances.


[1] Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) (stating the defense of lack of subject matter jurisdiction).

[2] Worthy v. City of Phenix City, No. 17 CV 73, 2017 WL 4478333, at *1, *6 (M.D. Ala. Oct. 06, 2017).

[3] Id. at *1.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Phenix City, Ala., Ordinance No. 2012-21 (Oct. 2, 2012), https://phenixcityal.us/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Ordinance-No.-2012-21.pdf.

[8] Worthy, 2017 WL 4478333, at *1.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Worthy, 2017 WL 4478333, at *1.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at *2.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Worthy, 2017 WL 4478333, at *2.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)).

[23] Id. (citing Stalley ex rel. U.S. v. Orlando Reg’l Healthcare Sys., Inc., 524 F.3d 1229, 1232 (11th Cir. 2008); Lawrence v. Dunbar, 919 F.2d 1525, 1528-29 (11th Cir. 1990)).

[24] Id. at *2. (citing Stalley, 524 F.3d at 1232 (11th Cir. 2008)).

[25] 504 U.S. 555 (1992).

[26] Worthy, 2017 WL 4478333, at *2 (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

[27] Id.

[28] 275 F.3d 553 (6th Cir. 2001).

[29] Id. at 555-56.

[30] Worthy, 2017 WL 4478333, at *3 (citing Herrada v. City of Detroit, 275 F.3d 553, 558 (6th Cir. 2001)).

[31] 582 F.3d 617 (6th Cir. 2009).

[32] Id. at 618 (emphasis added).

[33] Id. at 618, 620.

[34] Id. at 620-21.

[35] Id. at 620 (“Plaintiff contends that the procedures that Tennessee provides for citation hearings are constitutionally inadequate. Yet she has not yet experienced the procedures she challenges, and so, at first blush, it appears difficult to question the district court’s conclusion that Plaintiff lacked standing; without having been injured by these procedures, she resembles a mere outsider with a non-justiciable ‘general grievance.’”).

[36] See e.g. Stubbs v. City of Ctr. Point, 988 F. Supp. 2d 1270, 1277-78 (N.D. Ala. 2013) (“While payment of the fine could be considered an injury, plaintiff’s injury is not causally connected to the conduct of which she complains because she paid her fine without taking advantage of the process provided by the City to challenge it. Even if that process were insufficient . . . it did not cause Plaintiff to voluntarily pay her fine . . .”); Shavitz v. City of High Point, 270 F. Supp. 2d 702, 710 (M.D.N.C. 2003); Walter v. City of Chicago, 1992 WL 88457, at *3 (N.D. Ill. 1992).

[37] Worthy, 2017 WL 4478333, at *4 (citing Hughes v. City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 840 F.3d 987, 993-94 (8th Cir. 2016)).

[38] 840 F.3d 987 (8th Cir. 2016)

[39] Id. at 993-94.

[40] Worthy, 2017 WL 4478333, at *4, *6; see Williams, 582 F.3d at 620.

[41] Id.

[42] Id. at *5.

[43] Id. at *6.

[44] Id.

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