Automated law enforcement and rational basis

Does law enforcement need a human touch? The Supreme Court of Iowa says no. The Court recently decided that automated traffic enforcement (ATE) does not violate the Iowa Constitution. The Court, however, did take some time to address an important topic in constitutional jurisprudence: the nature of rational basis review.

Rational basis is a test applied to a variety of constitutional challenges. In the ATE case, the plaintiffs had brought due process and equal protection claims, both of which relied on the rational basis test. Rational basis is the weakest test in the hierarchy of judicial scrutiny. If a law is rationally related to a legitimate government interest, then a court won’t strike it down. As you might expect, plaintiffs very rarely succeed on this flimsy rational basis standard.

And so it was here. The Plaintiffs had argued that the ATE system in Cedar Rapids was not rationally related to an interest in public safety because, among many other things, the system punished a vehicle’s owner for speeding even if the owner was not the driver at the time. The Court had misgivings, but it ultimately deferred to the City and let the law slide.

The Court did, however, give a little boost to rational basis. The Court correctly noted that many state constitutions offer a stronger rational basis test than the federal test. That’s an important reminder to constitutional litigators–sometimes state constitutions may have analogous provisions to the federal constitution, but the protections they offer might be more robust.

The Court also made an important point about evidence in a rational basis claim. In many rational basis cases, plaintiffs don’t even get a chance to present evidence as to whether a law is rationally related to a legitimate government interest. If the government just asserts–without evidence–that a law furthers a legitimate interest like public safety, then the game is over. But the Iowa Supreme Court correctly noted that while a law is entitled to a presumption of constitutionality under rational basis, plaintiffs have a right to present evidence to rebut that presumption. Hence, “the mere incantation of the abracadabra of public safety does not end the analysis.” This evidentiary point is vital for strengthening the constitution’s protections against expansive government power.