Every driver who paid the fine on a New Orleans traffic camera ticket in the early years of the controversial enforcement program is owed a full refund, a judge ruled this week, ordering the city to pay up to an estimated $28 million to more than 200,000 scofflaws, the lead plaintiff and attorney in a class action lawsuit said Friday.
Robert Burns, a former longtime Jefferson Parish judge who serves as the ad hoc judge over the long-running case, issued his ruling from the bench on Wednesday.
Burns ruled that the city's decision to farm out the traffic enforcement program to the Department of Public Works at the onset of the program in 2008 violated the City Charter, and that the city therefore must repay all traffic camera fines issued from January 2008 to Nov. 3, 2010, according to plaintiff's attorney Joseph McMahon.
Reached by phone Friday, Burns declined to comment on the judgment, other than to confirm that he had rendered one. He referred questions to McMahon and a private attorney for the city, who also declined to comment.
A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration said Friday night that the city plans to appeal the ruling.
Scofflaws shouldn't expect to see refunds of their $110 ticket payments anytime soon. Even if the city's appeal fails, McMahon noted, the city has a long history of leaving tens of millions of dollars in civil judgments unpaid for years.
"Obviously, we're very happy for the class, but it's a long road between there and getting somebody a refund for their fine," he said.
The judgment, if upheld, would end the case for people who received traffic camera tickets in the early years of the program. McMahon said a broader challenge is pending, however, that could affect drivers who got ticketed on or after Nov. 4, 2010.
A bill that would let voters statewide decide whether to outlaw traffic cameras was crushed Monday in the Louisiana House Transportation Committee.
That was the date the City Council, in response to a court injunction barring the Public Works Department from enforcing and administering the program, placed it under the New Orleans Police Department.
The council attempted to make that decision retroactive. Burns then threw out the consolidated lawsuit, but a state appeals court panel reversed his decision, saying the city "cannot retroactively divest plaintiffs of that cause of action."
All of the Civil District Court judges in New Orleans recused themselves from the case, leading the Louisiana Supreme Court to appoint Burns.
His ruling comes seven years after plaintiffs began filing lawsuits over the automated ticket program that rankles much of the city's driving public, even as the number of cameras grows. The planned addition of 55 stationary and mobile cameras this year brings the total number of traffic cameras in the city to 121, according to news reports.
Several of those lawsuits were consolidated into the case that Burns addressed in his ruling Wednesday.
New Orleans is installing hundreds of signs warning drivers that mobile traffic cameras may be lurking nearby.
The program got off to a rocky start, sparking controversy when it came to light that the Public Works Department had hired a firm headed by an NOPD captain, Edwin Hosli, that paid off-duty cops to review the camera tickets, against Police Department policy.
Hosli, a close friend of then-NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, was later cleared of wrongdoing, but the hubbub came on the heels of a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report that portrayed the off-duty police detail program as an "aorta of corruption" on the force.
That assessment led to an overhaul of the police detail work, which is now managed by City Hall under the terms of a federal consent decree guiding a raft of NOPD reforms.
Burns did not rule that the city must pay a specific dollar amount back to speeders and red-light runners, McMahon said. The $28 million figure, he said, comes from city budget documents adding up revenue from the program.
The ruling marked the second successful challenge to a local traffic camera program. A similar lawsuit over a since-aborted camera program in unincorporated Jefferson Parish resulted in a $7 million legal settlement, said McMahon, who also was involved in that litigation.
In the New Orleans case, McMahon encouraged eligible traffic scofflaws to be patient.
"The problem is the city of New Orleans doesn't pay their judgments. Just like the firefighters had to fight for years, this fight is far from over," he said. "I would hope that the city would respect the fact the courts have ruled they have wrongfully taken money from maybe 250,000 citizens."
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