Local municipal courts do not hold sovereign immunity against claims that its practices of traffic and vehicle violations were unconstitutional.
In November 2016, six motorists filed federal claims against a traffic and ticketing practice by the City of Maplewood did not hold constitutional muster.
The Plaintiff’s argument as described in the opinion: “They assert the City automatically issues an arrest warrant whenever someone ticketed for violating its traffic and vehicle laws fails to pay a fine or appear in court. Once arrested, the motorist is allegedly presented with a Hobson’s choice: Either pay a bond the amount of which was set in advance without any determination of his ability to pay it, or sit in jail possibly for days. The plaintiffs further contend that once a warrant has been issued, a motorist cannot avoid it by voluntarily returning to the municipal court or paying the outstanding fine, but must either submit to a custodial arrest or retain a lawyer to argue a motion before the municipal judge to vacate the warrant. If the court does not grant the motion, the motorist, whose presence in court the judge allegedly demands, will be arrested and jailed. Jail, the plaintiffs assert, is the means by which the City attempts to coerce the motorist into paying the bond to secure his release. The complaint indicates that the City’s policy or custom involves additional steps that can ensnare motorists in repeated cycles of arrest, jailing, and pressure to pay a bond irrespective of their ability to do so. The plaintiffs maintain that since their poverty makes it difficult if not impossible to pay the bond, the City thereby violates, among other things, their due-process and equal-protection rights.”
The City of Maplewood moved to dismiss the claim under the grounds of sovereign immunity.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the City of Maplewood enjoys no sovereign immunity against claims that its handling of traffic and vehicle violations is unconstitutional.
The ruling affirmed the district court’s ruling that the City is not immune from being sued under 42 U.S.C.1983 in a class action lawsuit that alleged the City’s policy of automatically issuing arrest warrants was unconstitutional. The practice involved issuing arrest warrants when a traffic ticket was not paid or when a person failed to appear in court.
In its holding, the court said that municipalities were not like States. Municipal courts do not enjoy a constitutionally protected immunity from suit under the Eleventh Amendment.
The court rejected other arguments the City made such as it was just maintaining a practice as an arm of the state; and that it was immune from suit because individuals identified as participating in the practices were personally immune from suit. The court explained that in the past a municipality has always been held liable for an unconstitutional practice even when no official was found to be personally liable for their actions under the custom or policy that was found unconstitutional.