In late 2015 the Indiana Appeals Court ruled that the city of Carmel illegally reclassified state traffic law violations as municipal ordinance violations to earn more revenue. A lawyer rounded up some plaintiffs for a federal civil rights action and barely escaped being fined for a frivolous lawsuit.
Here’s a look at how not to make a federal case out of a traffic ticket.
The basic problem is, federal courts hear federal claims. Federal courts may not order state officials to obey state law.
The plaintiffs said Carmel violated state law. They were right, but they need to tell it to somebody who cares. As Judge Magnus-Stinson repeatedly pointed out, the tickets were for conduct that was illegal under state law. Being convicted under the wrong statute number is not a federal civil rights violation.
But, the lawyer said, if I could examine records and interview police I would find evidence of rights violations motivated by the improper classification of tickets. That didn’t fly. Courts don’t like fishing expeditions. You have to start with some facts. That’s been the law for almost a decade, since a Muslim man was detained and mistreated after 9/11 sued Attorney General John Ashcroft. He argued Ashcroft was responsible. The Supreme Court said that allegation was insufficient without some facts to back it up. It was possible Ashcroft violated the man’s rights, but it was only a possibility.
It is possible municipal officials conspired to violate drivers’ rights, but it is only a possibility.
The people who paid their tickets instead of appealing had no case under a principle called the “Rooker-Feldman doctrine.” You can’t appeal a state court decision to a federal District Court, “no matter how erroneous or unconstitutional the state court judgment may be.”
When you lose in traffic court you have to follow the state’s appeal process. That’s not a completely futile option. One driver, not a plaintiff in the failed lawsuit, did so successfully. Appealing is expensive, but the federal courts don’t care if beating an unjust ticket is expensive.
Despite not having a federal civil rights claim, drivers may be able to “seek compensatory or punitive damages related to emotional distress, humiliation, emotional pain, embarrassment, fear, anxiety, and anguish from the actual traffic stops.” They will have to ask a state judge.
Based on decisions in other states, I expect the state judge will also ask “why didn’t you appeal?”
The unspoken answer is, “I didn’t know the ticket was illegal and I was hoping for a windfall now that I know it is.”
I would love to see Carmel forced to pay back every penny. I have grave doubt that state courts will make it happen. The one person who does have a little power is the state Attorney General. He could insist that Carmel turn over all traffic fines to the state. It was supposed to be the state’s money in the first place.
Then the next mayor thinking of playing a similar game will think twice.
The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.