Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Speeders Not Similarly Situated: District Judge Dismisses Equal Protection Claim

Here’s the problem:  In the District of Columbia, motorists stopped by police officers and charged with speeding more than 30 mph over the speed limit are subject to automatic arrest, as well as possible criminal prosecution, a fine of $300, and imprisonment of not more than 90 days. By contrast, when a vehicle is photographed traveling at such speeds by the District's Automated Traffic Enforcement System ("ATE"), the District mails a summons and notice of infraction to the registered owner of the vehicle, allowing the owner to request a hearing, and the maximum penalty is a civil penalty.

In a brief opinion, the United States District Judge granted the district’s motion to dismiss the complaint based upon Equal Protection guarantees as incorporated in the Fifth Amendment. 

The judge reasoned that the speeders caught by a human police officer and the speeders caught by the technological system are simply not similarly situated.   The District had contended - - - and the judge agreed - - - that “the two groups of speeding motorists - - - i.e., those caught by an officer and those caught by the ATE system- - - are not similarly situated because the former may be arrested without a warrant while the latter may not," because a warrantless arrest is only permitted where an officer is a witness to an offense. The judge used Fourth Amendment doctrine to support what it names this "fundamental difference."

Probably a better approach - - - but one which would most likely have reached the same conclusion - - - would have been an additional analysis relying on another "traffic" case, Railway Express Agency v. New York, the 1942 case in many constitutional law casebooks best know for articulating the lowest level of rational basis scrutiny.  In Railway Express, New York City had prohibited advertising on vehicles with the exception of vehicles  “engaged in the usual business or regular work of the owner.”  The Court upheld the classification of non-owner advertisers  and owner-advertisers although the purported government interest was traffic safety and not being distracted by advertisements.

This could be of interest to ConLawProfs looking for a relatively simple equal protection problem for a pending exam.  Advantage: it tests the Fifth Amendment's "incorporation" of equal protection as articulated in Bolling v. Sharpe.  Disadvantage: it might require some knowledge of the Fourth Amendment.


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