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Rand v. City of New Orleans

Supreme Court of Louisiana

December 6, 2017

LEE RAND, ET AL.
v.
CITY OF NEW ORLEANS

         ON APPEAL FROM THE CIVIL JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT FOR THE PARISH OF ORLEANS

          WEIMER, Justice.

         This matter arises from a challenge to the validity of a municipal ordinance whereby citations, which are based on traffic camera images, may be reviewed at an administrative hearing. The case is before us on direct appeal from a district court judgment declaring that the administrative review process, as it existed during 2008 through 2012, was unconstitutional. More particularly, the district court declared the administrative review process violated the due process and access to court provisions of the Louisiana Constitution.

         After reviewing the record, we determine that this case has been rendered moot. While the record reveals a convoluted development of this case, what emerges from the trial record is that this case resulted in a number of changes, both legislative and practical, to the administrative review process. Although this case is technically moot, the end result is that the plaintiffs have achieved vindication of the constitutional rights for which they advocated. Accordingly, and for the reasons discussed herein, we vacate the judgment of the district court and dismiss the matter with prejudice.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In 2007, the City of New Orleans (the "City") enacted ordinances, codified as Sections 154-1701 through 154-1704 of its Code of Ordinances, which created the Automated Traffic Enforcement System ("ATES"). Pursuant to ATES, traffic cameras located at various points in the City gather images of vehicles when certain violations, such as speeding or running red lights, allegedly occur. By its express terms, ATES declares it is not a criminal law enforcement regime, as "[t]he imposition of a civil penalty under [ATES] shall not be considered a criminal conviction." New Orleans, La., Code of Ordinances, § 154-1704 (2017).

         Plaintiffs Edmond Harris and Lee Rand received notices of alleged ATES violations from the City. In their July 1, 2011 petition, the plaintiffs claim the administrative review process violated their constitutional rights to due process under La. Const. art. I, § 2 and their access to courts under Article I, § 22.[1] In their petition, the plaintiffs sought injunctive relief directing the "City to terminate all attempts at hearings until the City corrects the process."

         Following a hearing, the district court granted a preliminary injunction "enjoining, prohibiting, and restraining" the City "from conducting any administrative hearings authorized by the [ATES] ordinance." The district court stayed the injunction, however, pending review by the court of appeal. See Rand v. City of New Orleans, 2012-0348, p. 3 (La.App. 4 Cir. 12/13/12), 125 So.3d 476, 479. The court of appeal found no abuse of discretion by the trial court's issuance of a preliminary injunction. The court of appeal explained: "The record demonstrates that the hearing officers occupy two inconsistent positions, one as the prosecutor and one as the adjudicator, which violates the right to due process." Id., 2012-0348 at 8, 125 So.3d at 482.

         The City sought this court's discretionary review of the court of appeal's decision, which was denied. Rand v. City of New Orleans, 13-0119 (La. 3/1/13), 108 So.3d 1178.

         Seeking to capitalize on these determinations, plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment and prayed for the issuance of a permanent injunction against the administrative review process. The district court agreed, "[d]eclaring the process of hearing unconstitutional and violative of the State Constitution Declaration of Rights article, " and "[o]rdering the City to terminate all attempts at hearings until the City corrects the process." The district court additionally declared "that all hearings held between February 2008 and [the date of its ruling were] in violation of the State Constitution."

         The City appealed the permanent injunction. Rand v. City of New Orleans, 14-2506 (La. 6/30/15), 173 So.3d 1148. On that occasion, this court agreed with the City, finding that a permanent injunction could not issue on the same evidence plaintiffs had submitted for the preliminary injunction, plaintiffs having supplied no further evidence. Id., 14-2506, pp. 4-5, 173 So.3d at 1151. Accordingly, this court reversed the permanent injunction, and "reinstate[d] the preliminary injunction prohibiting the City from undertaking any hearings based on this ordinance, and remand[ed] the matter to the trial court for further proceedings." Id., 14-2506 at 6, 173 So.3d at 1152.

         On remand, plaintiffs filed a "Motion to Set for Trial on the Merits, " seeking to set the matter for a non-jury trial on the merits. The matter proceeded to a one-day bench trial on September 27, 2016.[2] Four witnesses testified at the trial: Lee Rand (one of the plaintiffs), Elman Harris (another plaintiff), Richard Bozeman (adjudication administrator of the traffic camera program) and Thomas Lee (a hearing officer for the program).

         At trial, the plaintiffs sought to establish that they had been denied meaningful access to a court for review of an adverse administrative hearing decision because the next level of review was to civil district court, where the filing fee exceeded $400. Although Mr. Bozeman, the ATES administrator, acknowledged that the appeal procedure to the district cost "more than the amount of the ticket, " he also testified that the appeals provision of the ATES ordinance had been amended. Pursuant to Code of Ordinances, § 154-1702(h)(1), as amended, appeals from adverse hearing decisions are no longer made to civil district court, but to traffic court. As provided by Code of Ordinances, § 154-1702(h)(2), "[t]he traffic court may require a reasonable fee not to exceed $50.00, from any person or persons lodging any such appeal with the traffic court."

         The plaintiffs also sought to establish that an intake form, ostensibly requiring a person desiring an administrative review hearing to acknowledge that the person was the owner or operator of a vehicle caught on camera, essentially operated as an admission of plaintiffs' liability for a citation. On both direct and cross-examination, however, plaintiffs established that they had paid nothing for the citations, as the citations they had received were all dismissed by the City.

          Additionally, the plaintiffs attempted to show bias in favor of the City by the hearing officers who conduct administrative reviews. The crux of this effort was an attempt to show some connection between upholding citations and the hearing officers' financial compensation. The uncontroverted testimony, however, was that no relationship existed between the number of citations upheld and any hearing officer's compensation.

         The plaintiffs also contended that it was improper for the hearing officers to both obtain the camera evidence from the computer system and to then review the merits of the citation. According to the plaintiffs, this situation was akin to the hearing officer acting as a prosecutor on the City's behalf. However, Mr. Bozeman testified that hearing procedures had been changed in 2012 after the issuance of the preliminary injunction. Mr. Bozeman described the 2012 change in hearing procedure, "where there then was a City Attorney who presented the City's case relative to the photo safety citations, a prosecutor, if you will, so to speak." Mr. Bozeman's testimony on this point was uncontroverted.

         Before describing the details of the district court's judgment, it should be noted that, in our earlier opinion, this court observed: "We note in passing that the District Court's judgment granting the permanent injunction also granted plaintiffs declaratory relief even though declaratory relief was not specifically requested by the plaintiffs. On remand, the parties may amend their petition to seek declaratory relief, if appropriate." Rand, 14-2506 at 6 n.10, 173 So.3d at 1152 n.10. However, without an amendment of the pleadings, ...


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