MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) — An 11th Circuit panel appeared highly unsympathetic Tuesday to Alabama drivers who argue a city ordinance unlawfully imposes fines on motorists caught by automated red-light cameras without giving them the right to confront their accuser.
In February 2017, Thomas Worthy, James Adams and insurer Willcox-Lumpkin Co. Inc. filed a class action in Alabama federal court alleging Phenix City and Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. conspired to illegally profit from fines that are assessed after drivers are caught running red lights by Redflex's cameras.
Adams and Worthy were each fined $100 after allegedly running red lights at intersections where Redflex's automated cameras were installed.
The two men alleged that a determination of their guilt was made based solely on the images captured by the red-light cameras.
Since no police officer appears or testifies at administrative hearings where red-light violations are adjudicated, the plaintiffs claim they are denied the opportunity to confront their accusers and are therefore denied the right to due process.
Worthy is the only plaintiff who requested and received an administrative hearing. He was found liable for the violation and did not appeal to a circuit court.
Although the plaintiffs claimed that the traffic violations are criminal in nature, the city alleged that the ordinance provides a civil rather than criminal penalty.
U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary sided with Phenix City and Redflex in an October 2017 decision, finding that the plaintiffs lack standing to assert claims of a lack of due process because they "cannot trace any injury to a process which they failed to utilize."
"If plaintiffs received a citation in error and were forced to pay a fine because the process provided by the city was not adequate to correct that error, they could bring a claim alleging a violation of due process. They cannot, however, assert a constitutional claim alleging nothing more than that the city's process is inadequate," the judge wrote.
Zouhary found that the plaintiffs are not faced with "an imminent threat of liability" due to the ordinance.
On Tuesday, attorneys representing the plaintiffs asked a three-judge 11th Circuit panel to overturn the district court's dismissal, but it appeared unlikely the federal appeals court will rule in their favor.
U.S. Circuit Judge Gerald Tjoflat called the allegations against the city "a shotgun complaint that is terrible" and accused the plaintiffs of trying to "bypass the judicial system of Alabama."
"Why in the world would we even entertain this? It's beyond me," Tjoflat said.
"This is a garden variety ordinance... You've deprived the Alabama courts of ruling on your constitutional arguments. You could've gone to the circuit court in Alabama and said [the ordinance] is unconstitutional," Tjoflat said during attorney George Walker III's arguments on behalf of the plaintiffs.
"We have the right to pick our forum," Walker responded.
"We're going to write an opinion that says... They deliberately refuse to go to the Alabama circuit court to raise these questions. They have thumbed their nose at the doctrine of federalism. How do you think that would look in print? You brought [the case] here because you think you'll lose in state court," Tjoflat said.
Attorney Thomas Wells Jr., representing Phenix City and Redflex, kept his comments brief and was interrupted by Tjoflat, who was clearly frustrated the case came before the panel.
“As to standing, we think the district court was correct,” Wells said. “There is no standing for the procedural due process claims.”
Tfoflat was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom and Senior U.S. District Judge John Antoon II, sitting by designation. The judges did not indicate when they will rule.
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