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Judge says traffic fines issue shouldn't linger

FARGO -- A federal judge said Friday he won't grant class action status to a lawsuit over illegal traffic fines issued by the city of Fargo if it's only going to turn into a "boondoggle" of expenses that leaves little money to be returned to those who paid the fines.

U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Webb met with attorneys for the city and Stephanie Sauby, a West Fargo woman who sued the city in January 2007 arguing that its traffic fines were higher than allowed by state law and violated her constitutional rights.

Webb had asked the North Dakota Supreme Court to decide whether Fargo could impose the higher fines under its home rule charter. The high court ruled unanimously Tuesday that the city couldn't exceed state fines.

Friday's status conference focused mainly on what legal issues must be resolved before deciding whether the case is eligible for class action status, which could potentially put millions of dollars back into the pockets of people who paid Fargo's higher fines.

Webb said if class action status is granted and the city is ordered to pay the difference in fines, the city may have to impose a levy to come up with the money because it has probably already spent the fine revenue.

"In other words, the taxpayers of the city of Fargo are going to pay any damages that accrue," he said.

However, if the cost of attorneys' fees, figuring out who is eligible for refunds and returning the money is too high, Webb said a class action likely wouldn't be granted.

"I'm not going to spend on behalf of a class (action) a lot of extra money, and I would guess the taxpayers of the city of Fargo would feel the same," he said.

Webb said he was surprised by an amended scheduling order submitted by attorneys that showed the case lasting at least another year. He said he won't agree to a plan that calls for a lot of legal wrangling.

"This is not going to be a boondoggle for legal expense, accounting expense or computer expense," he said.

Attorneys for both sides said they don't want that, either, but added there are issues and legal questions that need to be resolved.

Sauby's attorney, Tim Purdon, said traffic fine data is needed from the city to show commonality among those who paid higher fines. Webb acknowledged a class action would be "captive" to city records.

"From our perspective, the ball is in the city's court ... in relationship to paying people back," Purdon said after the conference.

Stacey Tjon Bossart, representing the city, said the outstanding issues include whether Sauby has legal standing to bring a class action and whether someone who challenged a fine in municipal court would have the right to participate in a class action. Webb alluded to how he may decide on the latter issue.

"I don't think you can forfeit your right when the fine has been improperly or illegally imposed," he said.

Tjon Bossart said the court also must look at whether the statute of limitations for the case is actually three years instead of six years as Sauby contends - a difference that would greatly affect how much money the city pays back, should it be ordered to do so in a class action.

Webb told the attorneys to bring back the legal issues and prepare a formal order for him to sign stating that the city must conform to state law. He commended city commissioners for already reducing the fines on Wednesday to state levels.

The Forum and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.