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City of Willis v. Garcia

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

July 6, 2017

CITY OF WILLIS, LEONARD REED, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS [MAYOR] OF THE CITY OF WILLIS, JAMES NOWAK, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS CHIEF OF POLICE OF THE CITY OF WILLIS, AND HECTOR FORESTIER, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS CITY MANAGER OF THE CITY OF WILLIS, Appellants
v.
LUIS GARCIA, ET AL, Appellees

          Submitted on October 27, 2016

         On Appeal from the 410th District Court Montgomery County, Texas Trial Cause No. 16-01-00297-CV

          Before McKeithen, C.J., Horton and Johnson, JJ.

          OPINION

          LEANNE JOHNSON Justice

         This is an accelerated appeal of an interlocutory order denying a plea to the jurisdiction. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(a)(8) (West Supp. 2016); Tex.R.App.P. 28.1(a). Appellants, the City of Willis (the City), Leonard Reed in his official capacity as Mayor of the City, James Nowak in his official capacity as Chief of Police of the City, and Hector Forestier in his official capacity as City Manager of the City, [1] in one issue contend that the trial court erred in denying their plea to the jurisdiction. Appellants argue that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust administrative remedies and the plaintiffs' claims are barred by governmental immunity.

         The underlying lawsuit was originally filed on January 11, 2016, by Luis Garcia, on behalf of himself and "others similarly situated" who have paid a civil penalty for violating the City's Ordinances sections 70.01 through 70.12 (enacted by the passage of Ordinance No. 09-0721A and hereinafter referred to as the "Red Light Camera Ordinance") that authorized and created a photographic traffic signal enforcement system in Willis. Luis Garcia, joined by Shelby D. Glazier, Alisa Davie, and Debra Earle (collectively Plaintiffs or Appellees), later filed a First Amended Original Petition, on behalf of themselves and again as proposed putative class representatives for those who are similarly situated registered automobile owners who have paid a civil penalty for violating the City's Red Light Camera Ordinance. Plaintiffs sought injunctive relief, declaratory relief, a refund of penalties paid or, alternatively, damages for inverse condemnation, certification of a class, appointment of attorneys to act as class counsel, and attorney's fees.[2] Plaintiffs' suit specifically challenges the constitutionality of the City's Red Light Camera Ordinance, Chapter 707 of the Texas Transportation Code, and section 29.003(g) of the Texas Government Code.[3] Additionally, the Plaintiffs allege that the City failed to meet the requirements of the City's Red Light Camera Ordinance and Chapter 707 of the Texas Transportation Code because the City allegedly failed to conduct a traffic engineering study as required before installing the cameras.

         The Defendants filed an answer and asserted a general denial. The Defendants challenge jurisdiction arguing the Plaintiffs' claims are barred by governmental immunity, official immunity, failure to exhaust administrative remedies, res judicata and collateral estoppel, and that exclusive jurisdiction rests in the municipal court.[4]

          The Defendants filed a joint Plea to the Jurisdiction arguing that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the Plaintiffs' claims. The Plaintiffs filed a response. The Plaintiffs argued in their response that they were seeking "declaratory relief and injunctive relief that Chapter 707 and the [City's Red Light Camera] Ordinance, which was enacted under the authority of Chapter 707, and Texas Government Code Section 29.003(g), are unconstitutional, and therefore illegal, void and of no effect." The Plaintiffs also asserted that they filed a "common law claim for reimbursement of the unconstitutional, and hence, unlawful red light camera penalties involved in this lawsuit. . . . [as well as] a takings claim under Article I, Section 17 of the Texas Constitution for reimbursement of the unlawful and illegal red light camera penalties involved in this lawsuit." The Plaintiffs further alleged that the failure of the City to conduct the required traffic engineering study precludes the City from assessing and collecting the fines. The Plaintiffs contend that their "claims for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, and reimbursement of the unlawful red light camera penalties involved in this lawsuit, based on Defendants assessing and collecting red light camera penalties in violation of the law, are not claims subject to the exhaustion of remedies defense asserted by Defendants."

          The trial court denied Appellants' Plea to the Jurisdiction, and this interlocutory appeal followed.[5] We reverse and render judgment for the Defendants.

         Red Light Camera Statutes

         In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill No. 1119, which was codified in Chapter 707 of the Texas Transportation Code, effective September 1, 2007. See Act of May 27, 2007, 80th Leg., R.S., Ch. 1149, §§ 1, 10, 2007 Tex. Gen. Laws 3924, 3931 (current version at Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 707.001-.019 (West 2011 & Supp. 2016)). The Legislature also amended section 29.003 of the Texas Government Code, adding subsection (g). See Act of May 27, 2007, 80th Leg., R.S., Ch. 1149, § 3, 2007 Tex. Gen. Laws 3924, 3930 (current version at Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 29.003(g)). Subsection (g) provides that "[a] municipal court, including a municipal court of record, shall have exclusive appellate jurisdiction within the municipality's territorial limits in a case arising under Chapter 707, Transportation Code." Id.

         Chapter 707 authorizes local municipalities to adopt and implement a camera enforcement system that imposes civil fines on owners of vehicles that have been photographed driving through red lights at designated intersections. See Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 707.001-.019.

Section 707.003 of the Texas Transportation Code provides as follows:
Sec. 707.003. Installation and Operation of Photographic Traffic Signal Enforcement System.
(a) A local authority that implements a photographic traffic signal enforcement system under this chapter may:
(1) contract for the administration and enforcement of the system; and
(2) install and operate the system or contract for the installation or operation of the system.
(b) A local authority that contracts for the administration and enforcement of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system may not agree to pay the contractor a specified percentage of, or dollar amount from, each civil penalty collected.
(c) Before installing a photographic traffic signal enforcement system at an intersection approach, the local authority shall conduct a traffic engineering study of the approach to determine whether, in addition to or as an alternative to the system, a design change to the approach or a change in the signalization of the intersection is likely to reduce the number of red light violations at the intersection.
(d) An intersection approach must be selected for the installation of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system based on traffic volume, the history of accidents at the approach, the number or frequency of red light violations at the intersection, and similar traffic engineering and safety criteria, without regard to the ethnic or socioeconomic characteristics of the area in which the approach is located.
(e) A local authority shall report results of the traffic engineering study required by Subsection (c) to a citizen advisory committee consisting of one person appointed by each member of the governing body of the local authority. The committee shall advise the local authority on the installation and operation of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system established under this chapter.
(f) A local authority may not impose a civil penalty under this chapter on the owner of a motor vehicle if the local authority violates Subsection (b) or (c).
(g) The local authority shall install signs along each roadway that leads to an intersection at which a photographic traffic signal enforcement system is in active use. The signs must be at least 100 feet from the intersection or located according to standards established in the manual adopted by the Texas Transportation Commission under Section 544.001, be easily readable to any operator approaching the intersection, and clearly indicate the presence of a photographic monitoring system that records violations that may result in the issuance of a notice of violation and the imposition of a monetary penalty.
(h) A local authority or the person with which the local authority contracts for the administration and enforcement of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system may not provide information about a civil penalty imposed under this chapter to a credit bureau, as defined by Section 392.001, Finance Code.

Id. at § 707.003.[6]

         THE CITY'S RED LIGHT CAMERA ORDINANCE

          On July 21, 2009, the City of Willis enacted Ordinance No. 09-0721A, wherein the City adopted a red light camera enforcement system for the City for three intersections within the City limits. Willis, Tex., Code of Ordinances ch. 70. The City's Red Light Camera Ordinance provides that the owner of a motor vehicle that runs a red light is liable for a civil penalty of $75, and if payment is late, an additional penalty of $25. Id. § 70.04. The notice of violation is to be mailed to the owner of the vehicle at the address indicated on the state's registration records not later than the thirtieth day after the violation is alleged to have occurred. Id. ยง 70.05(B). The notice shall contain (1) a description of the violation alleged; (2) the location of the intersection where the violation occurred; (3) the date and time of the violation; (4) the name and address of the owner of the vehicle involved in the violation; (5) the registration number displayed on the vehicle's license plate; (6) a copy of the recorded image of the area of the license plate where the registration number appears for the vehicle involved in the violation; (7) the amount of civil penalty for which the owner is liable; (8) the number of days that the person has within which to either pay or contest the imposition of the civil penalty as well as a statement that the person incurs a late payment penalty of $25 if the civil ...


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