Ruling to refund 147 PhotoCop fines may be just a start

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 2, 2007 - 12:30 AM

Thousands of people could reclaim up to $2.8 million in fines paid after their vehicles were videotaped going through red lights in Minneapolis, thanks to a ruling Monday that applies to a smaller number of people who sued.

Hennepin County District Judge Mark Wernick found that 147 people who asked to have their red-light cases reopened should get back $142 apiece in fines they paid because the Minnesota Supreme Court has deemed illegal Minneapolis' use of the so-called "PhotoCop" cameras.

And beyond those people, who filed motions without an attorney, up to 15,000 more vehicle owners who had paid tickets could find relief down the road.

If those "PhotoCop" cases are eventually thrown out, the process could involve refunding anywhere from $2.3 million to $2.8 million paid to the city, said Marshall Tanick, one of the attorneys representing clients in a separate federal suit. It's not as simple as cutting everyone a check, though, because the city gave portions of the fine money to the county.

Still, Tanick said, "We're very pleased with the ruling by Judge Wernick.

"It helps advance the constitutional rights of all of the people who received Photo-Cop tickets," he said. "As far as its effect on the federal class action, we think that it will be very helpful in assuring that all people who paid the fine get a refund."

In the spring, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the program violated statewide traffic laws. The court found that ticketing the owners of cars that were videotaped without proof of who was actually driving the car violated the rights of the owners. The photos did not show who was driving, but the owners had to go to court if they wanted to challenge the ticket.

"They automatically cited the owner, even if the owner wasn't driving," Tanick said.

The state Supreme Court's finding that the city had no authority to institute a system that videotaped cars running red lights had affirmed a March 2006 ruling by Wernick. At that time, about 5,000 such cases were pending; all were dismissed.

Still, an additional 15,000 to 20,000 people have already paid their tickets, and at issue is whether they will get their money back and their records cleared, and how that might happen.

On Monday, Wernick ruled that the 147 claimants who asked that their cases be reopened should have their guilty pleas withdrawn, the charges dismissed and all fines, surcharges and fees returned. Also, anyone who paid prosecution costs as part of a suspended prosecution should get money back, too, he ruled.

The city, which has five days to appeal, is studying Monday's ruling to determine its implications, said Matt Laible, a spokesman for the city. Of the $142 fine payment, the city receives roughly 30 percent and the rest goes to the county, Laible said. The fine itself is approximately $54 out of the $142, he said, and the rest is surcharges and fees, such as for a law library.

City officials will be faced with deciding whether to set up a mechanism to simply dismiss charges and refund fines to anyone else who received such a ticket and has already paid.

Wernick ruled that in the case of the 147 claimants, since the city collected the fine, it will be up to the city to pay it back, even after the money has been split with the county.

Now that the law has been declared invalid, Tanick said, all charges should be rescinded and the money refunded to anyone affected.

"They collected it wrongfully," Tanick said. "Now they should go back and figure out how to get it back."

The "PhotoCop" program began in 2005 and led to tickets issued against more than 26,000 vehicle owners, but not all had paid fines, Tanick said.

He said a hearing is set for November on making the federal claim a class-action suit.

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