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Dave Kolpack, Associated Press Writer, Published July 28 2010

Northwood man loses traffic fines appeal

An appeals court on Tuesday upheld a federal judge’s decision to throw out a traffic fines lawsuit in Grand Forks similar to a Fargo case that resulted a more than $1 million class-action settlement.

Bruce Mills lodged his complaint against the city of Grand Forks after Stephanie Sauby filed – and later won – a lawsuit against the city of Fargo. Both Mills and Sauby argued that their traffic fines were higher than state law allowed.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the late U.S. District Judge Rodney Webb was correct when he said the Sauby case was different because Fargo ignored the opinions of three state court judges who said the fines were illegal.

Mills’ attorney, Jonathan Garaas, said he believes the issues are identical.

“It’s a curious result. Really curious,” Garaas said of the ruling.

Mills, of Northwood, was cited for careless driving in Grand Forks in 2004 and fined $164. He said state law allowed for only a $30 fine. He filed unsuccessful appeals in state district court and the state Supreme Court.

Sauby, a West Fargo day care worker, filed her lawsuit in January 2007, after she was cited for five traffic violations. Webb declared it a class action in December 2008. The city of Fargo was ordered to pay about 14,000 people who filed valid claims for reimbursement.

Mills brought his complaint in April 2008. Webb dismissed it in April 2009.

A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit backed Webb’s opinion that Mills failed to raise any federal constitutional questions. The city of Grand Forks “reasonably and justifiably” relied on the opinions of two state attorneys general and shouldn’t have been expected to apply the district court decisions in Fargo, Webb said.

The 8th Circuit agreed.

“At the time the city cited Mills for careless driving, no binding legal precedent existed to show that the city’s traffic fines violated state law or that the city’s conduct was ‘truly irrational,’ ” wrote Judge Myron Bright, who lives in Fargo.

Garaas said he hasn’t been able to talk to Mills about the ruling because he’s out of the country, but he believes they’re likely to bring a new case in state court.

“I’m surprised that the federal constitution doesn’t provide protection, but we’re confident the state constitution will,” Garaas said.