Snider Int’l Corp. v. Town of Forest Heights, No. 12-2490

Decided: January 7, 2014

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision and held that two Maryland towns’ use of first-class mail to issue electronically-signed speeding citations and use of those citations as evidence at trial did not violate due process.

Snider International Corporation, Mark Cranford, Stan Brown, and Al Goyburu (“Plaintiffs”) received citations from the Town of Forest Heights, Maryland and the Town of Riverdale Park Maryland (“Defendants”). The citations were issued under Maryland’s speed camera program. These speed cameras produce electronically-recorded images of vehicles traveling in excess of the speed limit by at least twelve miles per hour. The automated citations carry a civil penalty no greater than forty dollars. Nonpayment and failure to contest the citation amounts to an admission of civil liability. The appropriate agency mails the citation to the registered owner of the recorded vehicle, and the citation must have the prescribed contents. A citation recipient may elect a trial in lieu of payment. At trial, the agency may introduce the citation as evidence without any corroborating evidence or authentication by the systems operator.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the automated citations violated both procedural and substantive due process. At bottom, procedural due process requires fair notice of impending state action and an opportunity to be heard. Proper notice is that which is “reasonably calculated to effect actual notice.” The Supreme Court has routinely recognized that the use of mail satisfies the notice element of due process. Here, first-class mail was reasonably calculated to confer actual notice. Defendants used registration information collected by the state’s transportation agency to mail summonses to the addresses registered in connection with the recorded vehicles. Due to successful delivery, Plaintiffs lacked any indication that first-class mail could not reasonably provide actual notice. In addition, sufficiency of notice does not turn upon the distinctions of in personam, in rem, and quasi in rem. Finally, no evidence indicated that the United States Postal Service delivers certified mail at a rate so superior to that of first-class mail that the Fourth Circuit should have declared first-class mail not reasonably calculated to provide actual notice. Therefore, notice via first-class mail comports with due process.

The Fourth Circuit also addressed the validity of electronic signatures on citations and the admissibility of the citations as sworn testimony in trial. Having found notice sufficient, the Fourth Circuit only needed to evaluate the opportunity to be heard. This prong of the procedural due process inquiry has three factors: (1) the private interest involved, (2) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards, and (3) the state interest, including fiscal and administrative burdens imposed by additional process. Here, Plaintiffs received constitutionally sufficient notice of the citation and potential penalty, and they could elect a trial. The notice set forth the basis for the adverse action. The trial permitted Plaintiffs to call witnesses and rebut the state’s evidence with their own. Plaintiffs’ driving privileges were unaffected and the $40 civil penalty was not subject to additional monetary penalties for nonpayment. The state has an interest in efficiently enforcing traffic laws would be greatly burdened were additional procedural safeguards required. Moreover, the mere availability of a trial is fatal to Plaintiffs’ procedural due process claims. Further, having forgone the opportunity to object to the use of electronically-signed citations as evidence, Plaintiffs were not able raise this issue for the first time on appeal in federal court.

Finally, the Fourth Circuit held that there was no substantive due process violation. Only the most egregious official conduct qualifies as constitutionally arbitrary. Plaintiffs failed to identify any element of the disputed procedures that equate to egregious official conduct unjustified by the state interest in traffic enforcement. Further, assessment of the $40 civil penalty was subject to correction through trial, presentation of witnesses, and rebuttal evidence and was, therefore, not arbitrary.

Full Opinion 

– Sarah Bishop

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