Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The question of municipal traffic ordinances

The Association often gets questions about the powers of a municipal council under state law, especially related to operating vehicles on roads and highways within city limits. Recently, the question has been raised whether city ordinances can address moving vehicle violations.

A recent legal opinion written for the Municipal Association by attorney Danny Crowe evaluates two 2013 Attorney General’s opinions about whether cities have the legal authority to impose local moving violation ordinances that set penalties different from those in state law. 

The state constitution mandates certain types of general "matters" (such as general citizen rights or general laws) cannot be "set aside" by legislative acts of local governments. These specific matters include "criminal laws and the penalties and sanctions for the transgressions thereof." The rationale for this constitutional carve-out from the legislative authority of local governments was a perceived need for statewide uniformity.

In his opinion, Crowe concludes a local moving violation ordinance that imposes fines higher or lower than those allowed by state law would likely be in conflict with state law and void. Similarly, moving violation ordinances that impose only a civil penalty and that avoid the criminal tracking and points system are also in conflict with state law.

A May 2013 AG opinion took the position that a local traffic ordinance cannot make acts unlawful that were already unlawful under state law. The opinion says an ordinance such as this would merely duplicate existing state law and, because of that, could not be considered an "additional" traffic regulation as authorized by state law.

Crowe also cites a November 2013 AG opinion that states ‘we believe local ordinances regulating traffic are void as in conflict with state law if such ordinances: regulate traffic in the same manner as any provision of the Uniform Traffic Act without express statutory authorization to do so; impose greater or lesser penalties for traffic violations than those set forth by the Uniform Traffic Act; or impose a civil fine as opposed to the criminal penalties prescribed by the UTA, thereby circumventing the criminal tracking and point system the legislature intended to be used for traffic violations.’

To avoid potential legal action being brought against the city, Crowe advises that municipal councils avoid imposing any traffic ordinance that would be in conflict with state law by duplicating a state law or setting penalties different from what is allowed in state law.

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