State wants list of class in traffic fine caseLawyers who won a class action lawsuit over excessive traffic fines in the city of Fargo are preparing for a new challenge.
By: By Dave Kolpack, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
FARGO — Lawyers who won a class action lawsuit over excessive traffic fines in the city of Fargo are preparing for a new challenge.
The state wants the updated information for about 14,000 people who have filed valid claims for reimbursement, to find out if any of them are behind in child support payments. Lawyers for the class are fighting the idea and have obtained a protective order from a federal judge.
“Our position as counsel for the class is that this information is confidential,” said Timothy Purdon, one of the attorneys for a Fargo woman who filed the original lawsuit. “We will continue to so argue as this matter moves forward.”
Child support officials say they are buoyed by the state’s favorable open records laws and insist that the sole purpose is collecting money for families.
“It’s public information as far as I know,” said Mike Schwindt, director of the state’s child support enforcement program.
U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson has approved a settlement for people who received traffic fines that were ruled illegal because they exceeded the amount allowed under state law. The judge said that if the state wants names of class members, it would have to pay for the list and get approval in federal court.
Schwindt said the state wants to review Erickson’s ruling before moving ahead with a subpoena.
Attorneys for the city said they didn’t have an opinion about releasing the list but were negotiating with the state on costs. Analytics Inc. charged about $5,300 for updating the database, city attorneys said.
Schwindt said it’s the second time the state has gone after plaintiffs in a class action suit. The other time, following a settlement of a 2002 Minot train derailment, it resulted in a $10,000 collection, he said.
“We’re really still trying to figure out how this process works,” Schwindt said. “If it works for us, great. If it doesn’t, at least we tried.”
The amount of money owed for child support in North Dakota is about $280 million and growing, Schwindt said.
Gregory Gordon, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at the University of North Dakota, said lawyers for the class will have a difficult time making the case that the list is private.
“I don’t really see any constitutional issues that would get in the way,” Gordon said. “The government will have to satisfy a probable cause standard, but I don’t see that as being an issue.”
Steven Mottinger, a Fargo defense attorney, said he believes Erickson’s decision to issue a protective order could mean the judge prefers to keep the list confidential.
“Obviously there are arguments on both sides of that,” Mottinger said. “My personal opinion is that it doesn’t seem to be cost-effective or fair.”
Intercepting the lawsuit payments may not be as important as getting the updated list of addresses, Schwindt said. The state is searching for people in about 5,000 cases, he said.
Lawyers argued at the hearing that class members should have been informed ahead of time that their information could be provided to the government. Schwindt said he won’t apologize for that.
“Helping families does not require an apology,” he said. “At the same time, we’re not trying to beat somebody up because they owe 10 cents.”
Gordon said a judge may not be sympathetic to people who are getting money in a case where they were cited for violations in the first place, and owe for child support.
“It does seem like poetic justice in the end,” he said.