David Sewell and four others sued the cities of Dallas and Carrollton and Dallas County Schools on Monday in Dallas County Court Monday. Dallas County Schools operate school buses for independent school districts in the county.
Sewell was fined $300 after a bench trial in June in Carrollton Municipal Court for passing a stopped school bus. He claims the photographic enforcement and administrative adjudication of school bus stop-arm violations was never authorized by the state: that bills in the Legislature that would have allowed it failed in the past four legislative sessions.
“No bill, law, statute, or constitutional amendment has ever been passed that would authorize any local government in Texas to enact camera-enforced school bus stop arm ordinances which conflict with statutorily established ‘Rules of the Road’ in Texas,” the 53-page complaint states.
“Despite such a clear lack of authorization, each of the defendant cities have passed illegal ordinances that, among other things, hold vehicle owners liable for a minimum of $300 if their vehicle is photographed passing a school bus with the stop arm engaged, regardless of who was actually driving the vehicle.”
The plaintiffs say the Texas Transportation Code grants no authority to local authorities to pass ordinances that conflict with it.
“Each defendant city acknowledges in each of the introductory recitals that section 545.066 creates a criminal penalty for passing a school bus while the stop arm is extended,” the complaint states.
Sewell cites a nonbinding opinion by the Texas Attorney General’s office in 2002 that concluded cities could not use automated enforcement equipment to impose a civil penalty for running a school bus.
“The Attorney General noted Texas cities were prohibited from doing this, because making the running of a school bus camera a civil penalty would conflict with state law that makes the running of a school bus camera a crime (a misdemeanor) under Transportation Code,” the complaint states.
Sewell also claims that the city ordinances “create an irrefutable presumption” that the car owners are guilty, that they were the driver during the alleged violation.
“The only way a registered owner can even attempt to overcome this presumption is if either the vehicle owner is in the business of selling, leasing, or renting vehicles and the vehicle was in fact at the time of the alleged violation being rented, leased or test driven by another person or if the registered owner did not hold legal title to the vehicle at the time of the alleged violation,” the complaint states. “This presumption and limited exceptions to liability violate the rights guaranteed to plaintiffs and others similarly situated to plaintiffs under the Bill of Rights of the Texas Constitution against self-incrimination, since in any criminal proceeding in Texas, one accused of a crime is presumed innocent.”
Dallas County Schools declined to comment Tuesday evening, citing the litigation.
“However, Dallas County Schools’ highest priority is student safety,” it said in a statement. “We will continue to seek ways to stop drivers from violating the law when it comes to stop arms and keeping children safe when buses are loading or unloading.”
Last week the agency fired more than a dozen bus drivers and suspended 229 others for committing traffic violations on the job, including committing stop arm violations themselves and running red lights.
Dallas County Schools said an internal investigation found 483 citations from January 2014 to September 2016 that involved 242 drivers. Dallas County Schools board president Larry Duncan said at the time that there were “multiple failures at all levels because staff did not follow procedures and there was no oversight.” He said an accountant has been made responsible for following up on every ticket.
The plaintiffs seek class certification damages and an injunction for violations of the Texas Constitution. They are represented by LeDouglas G. Johnson with Genator Johnson in Dallas and La Shon Fleming Bruce in Houston.
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