What began with a challenge to a red light camera ticket the city of Richardson issued to him six years ago, continues with Russell Bowman preparing to take a lawsuit to the Texas Supreme Court.
Bowman, an Irving lawyer, has made getting rid of red light cameras in Texas a career. And with the help of a few equally committed people, his fight is gaining momentum.
State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, who has carried bills to outlaw the cameras statewide in the last two legislative sessions, told The Texas Monitor Friday he is considering including language in a similar bill that would force cities to refund some or all of an estimated $537 million in fines collected over the last decade.
“These cities were breaking the law when they were issuing these tickets,” Huffines said in a phone interview from Israel. “We’re looking for relief for those who were fined. I think they deserve a refund. It’s very disheartening. If citizens are expected to obey the law, cities should be expected to obey the law, too.”
The law Huffines is referring to — Senate Bill 1119, passed in 2007 — is at the heart of all of the legal work Bowman has done over half of dozen years in dozens of Texas cities.
The bill requires cities considering installing any kind of red light camera system to prepare and approve an engineering study to justify its implementation.
Bowman argued successfully in a class action lawsuit on behalf of people who got red light camera tickets in Willis that the city had done no such study. Willis, about 50 miles north of Houston, won an appeal last August.
Bowman told The Texas Monitor on Friday he expected to file a brief for a hearing before the state Supreme Court. “These cases have been languishing but it’s all delaying tactics,” Bowman said. “These cities know they don’t have a leg to stand on.”
A district judge in Richardson helped Bowman score the first big win for the anti-camera forces when the judge awarded him more than $27,000 in attorney’s fees in a summary judgment in July of 2016. Bowman had been fighting his single ticket for three years.
Bowman began targeting most of the five dozen Texas cities with red light camera systems, rolling them into a class action lawsuit contending the tickets they were issuing were illegal.
Bowman has been forced to argue cases individually with judges ruling that the circumstances in each case are different, and stripping out all but a single city.
Building from Bowman’s case, Byron Schirmbeck, Texas coordinator for the national Campaign for Liberty, began pressing the city of Austin to produce an engineering study to validate its camera program.
With the help of this reporter, Schirmbeck, who had led a petition drive in Baytown that led to the city removing its camera system, made a formal request of Joana Perez, spokeswoman for Austin’s transportation department, to locate the study.
No study was ever produced.
Schirmbeck contended at the time nearly $6 million in red light camera citations — an average of 9,800 valued at $735,000 a year for eight years — were illegal.
“They never had the authority from the state to issue them since they didn’t meet the statutory requirements to impose the civil penalty,” Schirmbeck said at the time.
A year later, Schirmbeck’s contention was confirmed when KXAN-TV in Austin filed requests under the Texas Public Information Act for the engineering studies from Austin and 49 other Texas cities with red light camera systems. Only Abilene, College Station and Southlake could provide one.
Willis had provided a study, but it had been done after Bowman filed his lawsuit.
Reporters for the station using Texas Comptroller data found the cities they studied had collected $537 million since 2008.
In October, Helwig Van Der Grinten, founder of Houston Coalition Against Red Light Cameras, signed up Bowman to appeal a lower court dismissal of his class action lawsuit against the city of Sugar Land.
And earlier this week, Bowman marked the third anniversary of fighting James Watson’s red light camera ticket in Southlake. When the judge dropped 52 other cities from the lawsuit, Bowman vowed he would appeal. Bowman told The Texas Monitor he believed the appeal would be successful, but was prepared to fight the case as long as was necessary.
Huffines is hoping to save Bowman a lot of trouble. Bills to get rid of red light cameras have made it through the Senate in the past two sessions, only to stall in the House. Huffines blames it on House leadership. With the choice of a new speaker at the beginning of the session in January to replace outgoing Joe Straus, he is optimistic a red light camera bill will pass.
“The key here is that this has never been about public safety,” Huffines said. “Police departments and city officials have provided no evidence that this is the case. It’s about revenue. And I don’t think cities should be balancing their books on the back of Texans.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].