Lawsuit targets school bus camera tickets in two Texas cities

DALLAS (AP) -- A lawsuit claims two Texas cities are illegally using cameras to ticket drivers accused of ignoring stop signs that extend from school buses as students get on and off the vehicles, arguing that among other issues, the state Legislature hasn't authorized cities to take such action.

"To me, it's just beyond belief that cities would plunge down this path and spend the taxpayers' money on these systems -- and these systems are very expensive -- with so many red flags along the way," said LeDouglas Johnson, the attorney who recently filed the lawsuit last month in Dallas County.

Noting that state law already makes ignoring a school bus stop sign a criminal offense, the lawsuit argues that Dallas and Carrollton "took conduct that is a crime" and "devised a civil penalty in an attempt to transform it into a civil matter.

The lawsuit says local authorities can't enact an ordinance that conflicts with state law without authorization, and adds that the ordinances violate rights guaranteed in the Texas Constitution. However, some attorneys say such ordinances don't conflict with state law and guarantees of such constitutional rights don't apply to civil penalties.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of five motorists and asks for class-action status on behalf of all those who have gotten the $300 tickets since Dallas and Carrollton enacted their ordinances in 2012 and 2014, respectively. The lawsuit was filed against the two cities and Dallas County Schools, which is the governmental entity that operates the ticket programs in those cities and 13 others across Texas.

About 110,000 tickets have been issued in Dallas and Carrollton resulting in about $29 million in fines, according to Dallas County Schools.

Johnson said a ruling in his clients' favor could cause other Texas cities to abandon such programs for fear of being sued.

The lawsuit says that since 2007, four bills proposed in the Legislature seeking to give local authorities authorization to issue civil penalties for such violations didn't pass. State law makes passing a school bus with its stop sign extended a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 to $1,250.

Mick McKamie, a city attorney for Amarillo and Alpine, neither of which have such ordinances, said state law doesn't prohibit cities from issuing such civil penalties. He says the plaintiffs will have "a big hill to climb" in their argument that there's a conflict.

The lawsuit also says the ordinances violate various constitutional rights, including the right to a jury trial and the right against self-incrimination by presuming the registered owner was driving. But McKamie said there's no guarantee of a jury trial related to civil proceedings and that the right of self-incrimination only applies to criminal matters where jail is possible.

Melissa Hamilton, a visiting criminal law scholar at the University of Houston Law Center, said the lawsuit tries to argue that the violations are "civil in name only."

"They'll have to convince the judge that a civil violation is akin to criminal, but it's really not," she said.

But attorney Russell Bowman sees merit in the lawsuit. A judge ruled in his favor this summer in a lawsuit over a red light camera ticket he'd received from the Dallas suburb of Richardson. And Bowman notes that Johnson's lawsuit alleges the same constitutional violations that he did.

"Those ordinances (regarding school bus camera tickets) have the same constitutional problems as what was involved in my case and then it's got the even bigger problem that there's no state law that would even allow the city to do that," Bowman said.

The judge found Bowman wasn't liable for the ticket and ordered Richardson to pay him $27,500 in legal fees. The city is appealing.

Dallas County Schools board president Larry Duncan said he couldn't comment on the pending litigation. But he said the school bus ticket programs improve safety, noting that from the first year to the third of Dallas' program, violations decreased by 37 percent.

Carrollton officials declined comment, saying they hadn't been served with the lawsuit. Dallas officials didn't respond to a request for comment.

Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, said the tickets are among the tools that help prevent school bus stop sign violations. He said another is training bus drivers to stop in a way that they're less likely to be illegally passed.

It's a complex issue, though, Hood said. The "main message" is that such tickets "have value but there's way more to it than that," he said.

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