Iowa Supreme Court: No refunds for wrongly issued tickets
The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday unanimously rejected the appeal of a man who said the state should refund a $465 fine he paid for a speeding ticket on the heels of an earlier high court ruling that said commercial vehicle patrol officers could not issue such tickets.
The high court’s ruling likely means the state is off the hook for refunding millions of dollars in fines collected from tens of thousands of drivers wrongly ticketed over several years by Motor Vehicle Enforcement officers employed by the Iowa Department of Transportation.
A carrier enforcement officer stopped Rickie Rilea for speeding in 2016. Rilea pleaded guilty to the charge and paid the fine, but later sued to challenge the authority of the officer to issue speeding tickets.
In 2018, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that state law limited carrier enforcement officers to issuing tickets only for violations relating to operating authority, registration, size, weight and load of commercial vehicles — not for other traffic violations. State lawmakers changed the law in 2017 to allow carrier enforcement officers to issue tickets for a full range of traffic violations.
In a separate lawsuit, Rilea sought to recoup his $465 fine as well as class-action status that would allow thousands of motorists ticketed by carrier enforcement officers in the five to six years before the law was changed to also recover the fines they had paid.
Des Moines attorney Brandon Brown, who represented Rilea, has said his research turned up more than 22,000 drivers wrongly ticketed by IDOT carrier enforcement officers from 2014 through 2016. He said the average ticket was about $150, potentially amounting to more than $3.3 million in wrongly paid fines over two years.
Rilea argued in the lawsuit that the state was unjustly enriched by the collection of fines on illegally issued tickets. But the state Supreme Court sided with a lower court that found the time for Rilea to have objected to the fine was during the criminal portion of his case, not with a civil lawsuit.
“As the district court correctly held, the State’s retention of Rilea’s payment of the fine would only become unlawful if the underlying conviction were overturned,” Justice Matthew McDermott wrote for the court. “Rilea’s conviction has never been challenged, let alone overturned.”
In fact, the opinion noted, Rilea freely admitted he had been speeding in a construction zone when he pleaded guilty. The deadline for Rilea to appeal his conviction has long since passed, the high court said.
Brown, Rilea’s attorney, declined to comment Friday until he had a chance to speak to Rilea about the ruling.
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office referred requests for comment to the Iowa Department of Transportation. IDOT communications director Andrea Henry lauded Friday’s ruling and said she was unaware of any other lawsuits seeking refunds on tickets from carrier enforcement officers.
“All of our officers go through the same law enforcement training as every other officer in the state,” Henry said.