Iowa City Passes What May Be Unique Traffic Surveillance Law

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

Traffic passes through the intersection of Clinton and Burlington streets Tuesday, May 14, 2013 in downtown Iowa City.The intersection was one of the proposed sites for a new red light camera, but the Iowa City city council passed the first reading of a measure to repeal the ordinance required for the cameras to be installed. (Brian Ray/KCRG-TV9)

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By Jay Knoll

IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Iowa City Council Tuesday night adopted what may be a first-in-the-nation law to ban traffic-enforcement cameras, drones and most uses of license-plate readers, but it comes with a big caveat.

Despite the 7-0 vote to adopt an ordinance outlawing those technologies, the majority of the council still supports the use of red-light cameras. Also, city officials saw no problem prohibiting drones and automatic license-plate readers because the city has no plans to use them except, for the latter, for parking violations.

Still, Iowa City’s law appears to be at the very least uncommon and possibly unique in the United States.

“I’ve never heard of a law that covers all three of those at once,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analysis for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

Iowa City adopted an ordinance last year that allows for traffic-enforcement cameras, like red-light and speed cameras, although cameras had not yet been installed. The new ordinance bans those along with drones and automatic license-plate readers unless a police officer or parking attendant is on the scene.

The new ordinance has garnered some national media attention since the first vote on it two weeks ago. And privacy advocates are praising the council. A Colorado man even emailed council members to say, “If I lived closer, I’d take you all to lunch!”

But what many outside the area don’t seem to realize is that four of the seven council members, and some key city staffers, are still supportive of using red-light cameras in Iowa City at some point in the future.

The ban, however, will help avoid a potential legal battle over whether a citizen-initiated petition that led to the city taking up the issue could result in a public vote.

That petition, submitted this spring, sought to either force the City Council to either ban the devices or send the matter to voters in an election.

The city attorney ruled that the portion or the proposed ordinance dealing with traffic-enforcement cameras was not timely and therefore the council did not have to act on it. The ACLU of Iowa had earlier said it would consider suing if Iowa City did not allow the whole petition to move forward.

But city staffers recommended that the council ban all three technologies anyway. Part of their reasoning was that cameras would not be installed until at least next year and the council can reconsider the ordinance two years after it is adopted.

Council members did not comment on the ordinance Tuesday night, but at their last meeting, more than one mentioned reviewing the matter after the waiting period. Terry Dickens, for example, said he was reluctantly supporting the new ordinance and would be the first one to bring back cameras in two years if he’s still on the council.

The ACLU’s Stanley said that regardless of the City Council’s intent, debates like this do not occur everywhere in the U.S.

“The fact that Iowa City is having this discussion, having this debate, is a very healthy thing, and I hope in the end the final policies reflect the right balance,” he said.

He also said all three devices are controversial and he expects more debates over their use in local communities nationwide.

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