Many motorist rights court cases have made news in the past three months. Last week, we presented the first part of this update that focused on federal court decisions, and a few from the US Supreme Court. This week, we are diving into key motorist-related cases in state supreme or appellate courts.
Our hope is that the two newsletters give you some insight on what motorists are facing and fighting for around the country.
We would like to thank TheNewspaper.com as the source for much of this material.
Verra Mobility and Hertz Car Rental settled a toll road lawsuit with the City of San Francisco in February 2019. The city sued both companies two years ago because the PlatePass toll-charging service they operate together had been gouging users of the Golden Gate Bridge. Verra Mobility (renamed ticket camera company America Traffic Solutions) and Hertz were charging customers for the cost of tolls and automated traffic tickets along with administrative fees, often when drivers weren’t using toll roads. In a settlement, both companies agreed to pay the city of San Francisco $3.6 Million, instead of refunds to car renters. Both companies also must no longer impose unlawful PlatePass toll fees.
The state appellate court ruled in December that a traffic stop was improper. The panel of judges rejected the police officer’s account of events. He had not bothered to fix his dashcam, which had been out of commission for four months, and during testimony he either could not remember details of the stop or was flippant with the defendant’s attorney. The deputy had pulled over the driver because she briefly grazed the inside and outside line of her lane over the course of a mile without ever crossing over the line on a dark and twisty stretch of road. The judges noted in their ruling that weaving within a lane without an “obvious” reason could be worth investigating, but three brief touches on a lane line on a twisty road is not that unusual.
At the end of December, two out of the three Court of Appeals judges sided with prosecutors that police may ask questions unrelated to the purpose of a traffic stop to extract consent to search a motorist’s vehicle. This is a common “Columbo” police tactic to tell motorists he or she is free to go but then the officer will ask one more question. Drivers then think they have no alternative but to say yes to answering the question. The Court acknowledged that this police tactic is coercive in nature, but still upheld it as legal. As mentioned in last week’s newsletter, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in a similar case and agreed that the US Supreme Court Rodriquez vs. US decision, which prohibits police from prolonging a traffic stop by asking unrelated questions, was applicable.
The State Appeals Court upheld a traffic stop of a car that looked fast. Due to the ruling, police are now allowed to stop a car in Iowa if it appears the car is traveling too fast after the officer paces the car for just three seconds.
The State Appeals Court ruled in December that drivers cannot be stopped for a cracked windshield if vision is not impaired. Executive Director of the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union John Gordon stated, “They had no more reason to pull the driver over for that than if he had a bad paint job or he had a broken radio antenna. Just because there’s something wrong with the car, that doesn’t affect your ability to operate the car or endanger other people doesn’t give the right for police to pull drivers over.” He added that low-level offenses are fertile ground for arbitrary traffic stops that disproportionately impact people of color.
A class action is currently challenging the state’s tolling authorities’ ability to charge $50 fines for violations. A favorable ruling could mean any driver who received a toll on a state road between 2011 and 2019 could receive a refund from a restitution fund that may grow as large as $250 million. The U.S. District Court considering the class action is waiting for a determination from a New Jersey state court on whether the $50 fine is legal.
Under a February Court of Appeals ruling, stopping a few inches over the white line at an intersection is now a traffic violation. The law is now strict that even a momentary “bobble” over the line can result in being pulled over and stopped. One of the judge’s wrote in the ruling, “We hold that the statutory requirement to stop ‘at a clearly marked stop line’ requires a driver to come to a complete stop before the vehicle comes into contact with the stop line.” In the earlier municipal court trial, the judge threw out the case after watching the dashcam video and finding that the traffic stop was illegal.
In January, the State Supreme Court sided with a motorcyclist over his insurance company. The ruling nullified hidden policy clauses that attempt to evade coverage for all of a household’s vehicles unless the customer explicitly chooses to decline the coverage for all of a household’s vehicles. The court ruled that Geico’s refusal to fully cover a motorcyclist’s underinsured motorist claim violated state law.
We would be remiss not to mention the lawsuit brought by the NMA and Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association against the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission last year. While the federal judge in U.S. District Court has not yet scheduled a hearing for the case and is currently reviewing several briefs and motions by both plaintiffs and defendants, there have been a couple of interesting developments. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority has placed several dozen projects on hold in anticipation that much of its funding will be cut with a verdict favoring the NMA, OOIDA and users of the Pennsylvania Turnpike who have been paying inflated tolls for many years. Also, in a strange radio interview that likely damaged his state’s arguments in the lawsuit, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf acknowledged that the turnpike tolls are too high and are driving business away. We expect movement in the case before this summer.
In November, the Texas Supreme Court heard arguments in a red-light camera lawsuit. Residents from the town of Willis say their city’s RLCs are illegal since there was no engineering study done prior to installation—a requirement of state law. Here is an NMA member’s account of the proceedings.
This is one of three RLC cases currently awaiting action from the Texas Supreme Court and there are another three challenges awaiting their turn in lower-level appeals court. The common thread in all six cases—Irving insurance attorney Russell Bowman who received a Richardson camera ticket in 2014.
The State Supreme Court ruled that police are liable for racist traffic stops. The plaintiff in the linked case was stopped due to a small amount of snow covering his license plate. After smelling marijuana, the state trooper asked to search the car and the 21-year-old motorist declined. The trooper immediately impounded and searched the car and found nothing illegal. The driver then had to walk eight miles home in 20 degree weather and pay $150 to pick up his car from the impound. In January, the three high-court justices ruled that the state could not assert sovereign immunity after violating the young man’s rights. The case has been sent back to trial court to develop the facts. If found in the driver’s favor, the state police would then have to pay for punitive damages. The American Civil Liberties Union attorney for the plaintiff said, “In ruling that police can be liable for such acts, this decision sends a clear message—no one is above the law, and if police make bad stops, they can and will be held accountable.”
Motorist rights’ issues can be won through legislation or through the courts. Use the NMA’s online Bill Tracker to follow key legislative activity. The table can be sorted to suit your needs, e.g., by state or by issue. If we are missing a bill that you think the NMA should be following, drop us a line at [email protected] or call (800) 882-2785. Armed with the bill number and title, and the state (or federal) legislature that is considering it, we can take it from there.