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Mills v. City of Grand Forks

April 15, 2009

BRUCE ROGER MILLS, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF THOSE SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF GRAND FORKS, DEFENDANT.



MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

The Defendant City of Grand Forks ("the City") has moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing the Plaintiff Bruce Roger Mills ("Mills") has failed to raise any federal constitutional violations (doc. #9). Mills asserts the City's traffic fine schedule was illegal prior to the North Dakota Supreme Court's recent decision in Sauby v. City of Fargo, 2008 ND 60, 747 N.W.2d 65. For reasons set forth below, the Court holds Mills has failed to raise any federal constitutional violations, and thus it GRANTS the City's motion on each of Mills' three counts.

I. Facts

The City is a home rule charter city governed by chapter 40-05.1 of the North Dakota Century Code. Prior to the North Dakota Supreme Court's holding in Sauby, the City imposed fines for traffic violations that exceeded those set forth under N.D. Cent. Code § 39-06.1-06. In doing so, the City claims it relied upon two North Dakota Attorney General opinions which provided that home rule cities may establish fees for traffic violations that exceed the fees set forth under N.D. Cent. Code § 39-06.1-06. See generally N.D. Op. Atty. Gen. 82-62 (Aug. 19, 1982); N.D. Op. Atty. Gen. 2001-F-07 (Jul. 20, 2001). The North Dakota Supreme Court's decision in Sauby, however, established that home rule cities are precluded from superseding criminal or non-criminal offenses defined by state law. Mills sued the City in March 2008 on behalf of himself and others similarly situated after the North Dakota Supreme Court's decision in Sauby. His action was based upon a citation he received from a City Police Officer on July 7, 2004 for Careless Driving. After trial, the municipal judge imposed a sentence consisting of a fine in the amount of $151.00 and a hearing fee of $15.00, for a total of $166.00. Despite the City's ordinance providing for a maximum fine of $1,000, the maximum penalty authorized under North Dakota state law for a careless driving violation was $30.00. Upon appeal to the District Court of Grand Forks County, District Judge Lawrence E. Janhke affirmed the conviction and total fine and fees of $166.00. Mills subsequently filed a Notice of Appeal from Judge Janhke's order, but the North Dakota Supreme Court dismissed the appeal as not appealable under N.D. Cent. Code § 39.06.1-03(5).

In the present case, Mills alleges that the City deprived him of his constitutional rights secured by the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and by the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The City has moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing the conduct of the City as alleged by Mills does not establish a federal constitutional violation.

II. Discussion

A party may move for judgment on the pleadings "[a]fter the pleadings are closed but within such time as not to delay the trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). "Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate only when there is no dispute as to any material facts and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Ashley County, Ark. v. Pfizer, Inc., 552 F.3d 659, 665 (8th Cir. 2009). The Court "accept[s] as true all facts pleaded by the nonmoving party, and [the Court grants] all reasonable inferences from the pleadings in favor of the nonmoving party." Dillard's Inc. v. Liberty Life Assurance Co. of Boston, 456 F.3d 894, 899 (8th Cir. 2006). However, the Court "is free to ignore legal conclusions, unsupported conclusions, unwarranted inferences and sweeping legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations." Wiles v. Capitol Indem. Corp., 280 F.3d 868, 870 (8th Cir. 2002).

A. Due Process

Mills claims he has been deprived of his constitutional right to due process of law by the City's traffic fine scheme. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a state from depriving "any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law[.]" U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. In analyzing a substantive due process claim, courts consider whether the plaintiff possesses a right arising under the Fourteenth Amendment and whether the defendant deprived the plaintiffs of that right within the meaning of the Due Process Clause. Ganley v. Minneapolis Park and Recreation Bd., 491 F.3d 743, 749 (8th Cir. 2007). To meet their burden, the plaintiffs "must demonstrate that the government action complained of is truly irrational, that is something more than . . . arbitrary, capricious, or in violation of state law." Id. See also Rivera v. Illinois, _ S.Ct. _, No. 07-9995, 2009 WL 815033, at *8 (March 31, 2009) ("[E]rrors of state law do not automatically become violations of due process."). "Truly irrational" conduct has also been defined as conduct that is "conscience shocking, in a constitutional sense." Skokos v. Rhoades, 440 F.3d 957, 962 (8th Cir. 2006)(quoting County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 847 (1998)).

The City argues its establishment and collection of non-criminal traffic fees in excess of those for similar violations under state law was not egregious or truly irrational. Furthermore, the City asserts that prior to the North Dakota Supreme Court's decision in Sauby, it reasonably and justifiably relied upon two North Dakota Attorney General opinions. According to the first of these opinions, "Where a home rule city charter and ordinances provides for fees for violations of city ordinances regulating motor vehicles and traffic in amounts exceeding the limits stated in Section 39-06.1-06, N.D.C.C., the state law shall be superseded by the home rule city ordinance only within the jurisdiction of the city." N.D. Op. Atty. Gen. 82-62 (Aug. 19, 1982). The second opinion, though analyzing a different issue, also concluded that home rule cities may supersede state law when dealing with a non-criminal offense.

N.D. Op. Atty. Gen. 2001-F-07 (Jul. 20, 2001). This is precisely what occurred in this case, the City argues, as Mills was found guilty of committing a non-criminal traffic offense established pursuant to City ordinance in accordance with the City's home rule charter.*fn1

In response, Mills repeatedly emphasizes that the City's fee scheme was not authorized by statute, and was therefore illegal. According to Mills, the City cannot claim it relied upon the North Dakota Attorney General opinions because it should have known its system of fines was unauthorized under state law after the North Dakota Supreme Court's decision in City of Fargo v. Little Brown Jug, 468 N.W.2d 392 (N.D. 1991). In Little Brown Jug, Mills argues, the Court established that a city can set forth no greater penalty than that imposed by state law. The City responds that Little Brown Jug is inapposite because it only addressed criminal offenses, unlike the non-criminal offenses at issue here and in the North Dakota Attorney General opinions.

Although Little Brown Jug raised equal protection concerns which will be discussed below, it did not stand for the proposition that a city may not supersede state law for all offenses, contrary to Mills' assertion. Rather, Little Brown Jug only addressed criminal offenses, and it left open the question of whether a city may supersede state law as to non-criminal offenses. This is made explicitly clear by the North Dakota Supreme Court's pronouncement in Sauby that "[t]his is the first time this Court has considered whether non-criminal municipal offenses may supersede state law." 2008 ND 60, at ¶ 11. Thus, Mills' argument that the City was charged with knowing its ordinances were invalid after Little Brown Jug are not convincing because the North Dakota Supreme Court itself stated that it did not decide the issue for the first time until Sauby.

While Mills' Little Brown Jug argument fails, he also asserts that the City was placed on notice of the illegality of its traffic ordinance as a result of Judge Backes' 2001 Memorandum Opinion in City of Fargo v. Cose, No. 09-01-K-1578 (N.D. Dist. Ct., E. Cent. Jud. Dist. Aug. 30, 2001). Mills points out that the City specifically denied having knowledge of two other East Central Judicial District cases, while it did not specifically deny it had knowledge of Cose. This serves as an issue of fact, according to Mills, regarding what and when the City knew about its illegal traffic scheme. Furthermore, Mills claims, the Memorandum Opinion is a judicial decision that serves as part of the common law, and as such, the City was bound to adhere by its holding.

The City argues, and the Court agrees, that whether or not it had notice of Judge Backes' decision is largely irrelevant because the decision would not have been binding. "A trial court decision, particularly one in a different case and from another jurisdiction, is not authoritative." United Accounts, Inc. v. Teladvantage, Inc., 524 N.W.2d 605, 606 (N.D. 1994). This is particularly true here because the decisions cited ...


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