Mayor Mitch Landrieu claims that he is genuinely concerned about the due process rights of those accused of automated traffic camera violations. So does Council President Jackie Clarkson.
Indeed, when State Representative Jeff Arnold (D-Algiers) began making noise about the issue last May, he was openly lauded by Landrieu as “a steadfast advocate for due process rights for those accused of an automated camera violation.”
Landrieu was announcing his support for a bill brought by Councilwoman Clarkson on behalf of the Administration. The proposed ordinance would shift camera ticket appeals (but not the initial hearing) from Civil District Court to Traffic Court. According to Landrieu this would “allow residents to have a venue to make their case before an elected judge” and would “also be more accessible since the fees associated with filing in Traffic Court are considerably less.”
When I heard about this proposed change, my first reaction was puzzlement. Traffic Court is a criminal court, whereas camera tickets are civil violations. How can Traffic Court be made to handle civil appeals falling under the Administrative Procedure Act?
The short answer is, it can’t. The proposed ordinance was withdrawn a few months ago after being repeatedly deferred. According to Mike Sherman, Landrieu’s chief liaison with the City Council, the realization came when city officials discovered that appeals from Traffic Court (a criminal court) must be heard in Criminal District Court.
I’m sure that this was a shocking revelation.
Of course, a less charitable interpretation is that the Administration incompetently proposed an ordinance that was obviously in contravention of state law and all common sense, and has yet to propose anything to replace it.
Or, if we want to be even less charitable, we might assume that Landrieu knew the ordinance was illegal all along and only pushed it to shut Rep. Arnold down and quell concerns over the lack of due process at the New Orleans Administrative Hearing Center, the mockery of justice that issues determinations on parking and camera tickets for the city. The ordinance was deferred for a decent interval, and then withdrawn.
Whether shrewd or stupid, the ordinance proposed by Landrieu and sponsored by Clarkson essentially represents an admission on behalf of the city that the Administrative Hearing Center doesn’t give citizens a fair shake, and that the city gives the shaft to anybody who appeals camera tickets to Civil District Court.
This admission comports with my column from a few weeks ago. As I noted then, “the problem is twofold: One, that the Administrative Hearing Center ignores basic rules of evidence and procedure and acts as a rubber-stamp for the city, and; two, that the city refuses to pay cost judgments from camera tickets appealed to Civil District Court, thus guaranteeing that a citizen who challenges the city’s illegal determination will be out twice the face value of the ticket (which is the filing fee for such an appeal).”
This being the case, why doesn’t Landrieu move to reform the Administrative Hearing Center, which is under the Department of Public Works and headed by- one of his own hand-picked appointees?
And if not that, why won’t Landrieu at least agree to pay any award of court costs from a camera ticket appeal within, say, 30 days?
These are obvious, simple fixes. However, they both have one thing in common: they would cost the city money and would likely make the automated traffic camera program unprofitable. Providing a legitimate, fair civil hearing is expensive. The city would have to actually produce record evidence, which it currently refuses to do. Witnesses could be called and cross-examined. Hearing Officers would be truly independent and hired according to merit.
Likewise, paying cost judgments from camera appeals in a timely manner would be expensive if the city failed to reform the Administrative Hearing Center. This is because as the situation stands currently, the Administrative Hearing Center doesn’t produce an evidentiary record that can withstand an appeal. The only reason why the city isn’t inundated with camera appeals is because they refuse to pay court costs, and under state law, you can’t enforce a judgment against a municipality.
Mayor Landrieu has all but admitted that the automated traffic enforcement program is all about revenue. In a bid to frighten citizens already concerned about the city’s budgetary woes, his office has ominously claimed that the elimination of traffic cameras could “‘impact essential city services and could result in additional furloughs and closing of city facilities.”
However, it has now been nearly four months since Clarkson’s bill was withdrawn. All Landrieu’s office has done since that time is endorse a state proposal to allow appeals from Traffic Court to be heard in Civil District Court (given that traffic offenses are traditionally criminal matters, this makes little sense).
Although Landrieu appointed Lt. Col. Mark Jernigan as head of the Public Works Department last November to replace Robert Mendoza, there has been no reform of the Administrative Hearing Center. Thus, all we’ve gotten from Landrieu is the admission that we are being denied due process, and the consolation that the city really, really needs the dough.
The moral of this column is this: The systematic denial of due process is a feature of the automated traffic enforcement system, not a bug. It is the denial of due process that makes the cameras profitable versus traditional methods of enforcement (i.e., the cop on the corner). If the city actually had to pony up the cash to give citizens a fair hearing from the get-go, it would drop the cameras like a bad habit.
So Mayor Landrieu, you’ve reached the first step. You’ve admitted you have a problem with the camera system. Next, you need to go cold turkey. Stop denying New Orleanians due process and scrap the cameras entirely.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.