BEAUMONT -- The Ninth Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Oct. 27, regarding the city of Willis' red light camera ordinance.
Luis Garcia filed a class action lawsuit in 2016 on behalf of himself and all registered vehicle owners who paid a civil penalty for violating the city’s red light camera ordinance, in the 410th Judicial District Court in Montgomery County, Texas.
The lawsuit alleges the ordinance is unconstitutional and argues in the event the ordinance is found constitutional that the city violated the law by failing to conduct a traffic examination before it was permitted to install the cameras.
The lawsuit seeks, “a declaration that provisions of Chapter 707 of the Texas Transportation Code, provisions of Chapter 70 of Willis Code of Ordinances Title VII, and Section 29.003(g) of the Texas Government Code are unconstitutional,” or alternatively, “a declaration that the city officials acted ultra vires in enforcing the city’s red light camera ordinance and are liable to the putative class for reimbursement of civil penalties paid under the Ordinance”
In response to the lawsuit, the city filed a plea for jurisdiction in the district court arguing it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s claims, and only the municipal court could rule on the ordinance’s constitutionality.
The district court denied the city’s plea to the jurisdiction April 21.
Background on the ordinance
In 2007, the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill No. 1119, which permitted the implementation of “photographic traffic signal enforcement systems” by municipalities and became effective Sept. 1, 2007.
The ordinance stipulates the owner of a vehicle photographed running a red light is liable for a civil penalty of $75, and late fees of $25 if not paid within 30 days of the date of violation.
The notice is mailed to the address of the owner on file with the state and lists several pieces of information including a description of the violation, where it occurred, the date and time of the violation, and an image of the license plate.
Luis Garcia and other parties in the lawsuit claim they received the notices of alleged violations and paid the penalties on various dates in 2014. The city argues the plaintiffs never requested a hearing or contested the fines.
The city’s oral argument brief
The city appealed the district court’s denial for its plea for jurisdiction and submitted a brief for oral arguments.
The brief argues the Garcias failed to exhaust their remedies under the statute, that it had the authority to install cameras and that the court erred in denying its original motion to dismiss because the court lacked jurisdiction to decide on the case.
In the city’s challenge of jurisdiction, it argues, in part, that the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance to obtain monetary damages and as such, the exclusive jurisdiction rests with the Willis Municipal Court, and not the district court. The city’s brief states, “Sovereign immunity is inapplicable when a suit challenges the constitutionality of a statute and seeks only equitable relief.”
It requests the court to reverse the trial court’s order denying their plea to the jurisdiction and to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims against the city.
The plaintiffs’ oral argument brief
The plaintiff’s oral brief contends because the city did not conduct the traffic engineering study required by law, it was never permitted to install the cameras.
They also say they paid the ordinance fines under duress because they allegedly faced damage to their credit, harassment from a collection agency and the loss of their right to renew their vehicle registration if they didn’t pay the fine.
In response to the city’s argument the plaintiffs didn’t exhaust all legal remedies before filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue it was not required to do so because their claim seeks relief regarding constitutionality of a law which falls outside of the requirements that would bind them to exhausting legal remedies.
The plaintiffs also contend, in response to the city’s dispute regarding primary jurisdiction, that governmental immunity doesn’t apply because the plaintiffs are challenging the validity of a law and immunity does not protect the city under that claim.
The plaintiffs request that the court affirm the denial of the city’s plea to jurisdiction, rule the city is not immune, and send the case back to the district court for further proceedings.