Federal Way judges rule Fred Meyer crosswalk a legal school zone

The school zone speed enforcement cameras for Saghalie Middle School are located on 21st Avenue SW, along the west side of Fred Meyer. The school itself is located on 19th Avenue SW on the opposite side of Fred Meyer. - File photo
The school zone speed enforcement cameras for Saghalie Middle School are located on 21st Avenue SW, along the west side of Fred Meyer. The school itself is located on 19th Avenue SW on the opposite side of Fred Meyer.
— image credit: File photo

Federal Way Municipal Court judges recently ruled that, yes, drivers of Federal Way can get a speeding ticket from traffic cameras at the Saghalie Middle School crosswalk by Fred Meyer.

Unlike a ruling last August that allowed Federal Way resident Stephen Cramer to argue his way out of a $210 speeding ticket, judges David A. Larson and Rebecca C. Robertson corrected the misconceived notion that “the crosswalk near Saghalie Middle School is not a school zone” in an official report on June 27.

In April, seven defendants challenged the city of Federal Way on speeding tickets they acquired at the crosswalk located at 21st Avenue Southwest between Southwest 338th Place and Southwest 339th Street.

The crosswalk is adjacent to Fred Meyer on the opposite side of the school but is clearly marked as a school speed zone.

The defendants brought forward an August 2013 Federal Way Mirror article as their defense, which detailed the decision on the previous case by a pro tem judge, Mary E. Lynch.

The alleged speeder, Cramer brought a Google map image of the area that showed Saghalie Middle School was 1,090 feet from the designated school zone on 21st Avenue Southwest.

Because of the location, Cramer stated it couldn’t be a school zone because the law states school speed zones “may extend 300 feet from the border of the school” and therefore he should have been driving in a 35 mph speed zone.

He was allegedly going 28 mph on May 6, 2013, according to the traffic camera.

The defendants tried to use the same August 2013 argument: Acquiring a speeding ticket during an active school zone at that location was illegal, according to RCW 46.61.440(2).

City officials conceded while the crosswalk is greater than 300 feet from the school boundary, the school zone is legal under RCW 46.61.440(1) because there is no provision requiring that the school speed zone be within 300 feet of a school boundary.

Noting that the decisions of other trial court judges do not set legal precedent binding other judges, Larson and Robertson conducted a legal analysis outlined in 11 pages.

The judges’ findings of fact and conclusions of law determined the crosswalk, which was built in 1995 after a child was struck and killed by a car in that area, need not be within 300 feet of a school to be considered a school speed zone.

Emphasizing the word “may” in RCW 46.61.440(2) that a school or playground speed zone “may extend [300] feet from the border of the school or playground property,” the judges stated it is “logical for the Legislature to provide for the creation of different types of speed zones to provide flexibility based upon the geography near the school.”

That “flexibility” includes situations where a commercial facility is between the school and residential area served by the school, such as Fred Meyer, and if students cross a busy street, 21st Avenue Southwest, that is more than 300 feet from a school boundary to get to and from the school.

But Federal Way attorney Herman C. Brewer IV disagrees with how the judges interpreted the law.

Brewer said he interprets that if there is a crosswalk within the school zone, then subsection 1 of the RCW should be applied. If there’s not, then subsection 2 is the law that pertains to that situation.

“In our scenario at Saghalie, since there is a crosswalk on 19th Avenue, in our scenario we should probably be using subsection 1,” Brewer said. “In reviewing the brief, they’ve taken a whole complete different meaning of the RCW as it’s defined.”

Brewer said the judges’ interpretation that the school speed zone can extend if a residential area is nearby is wrong because then there would be no need for subsection 2 of the law.

“Another flaw in doing that is there’s a Fred Meyer and the Fred Meyer is just loaded with 300 cars,” he said. “The children have to walk across that school zone, the indicated school zone they’ve placed there, only to have to walk across a Fred Meyer parking lot that’s filled with cars.”

After determining the city could use the area as a school speed zone of 20 mph, the judges analyzed whether it is legal to use traffic cameras as photo enforcement.

Explaining that different parts of the law use different terms - school crosswalk zones versus school speed zones - Larson and Robertson wrote that “the issue is whether the Legislature intended to exclude school crosswalk zones created under [the law] from the photo enforcement provisions … when it referred to photo enforcement only being allowed in ‘school speed zones.’

“Courts are bound by the language found in statutes as they are written by the Legislature,” the judges wrote in their report. “They cannot substitute its judgement for the judgement of the Legislature … This is one of those cases. Anyone aggrieved by the courts’ decision in this case should consider asking the Legislature to clarify RCW 46.63.170.”

Therefore, the judges also determined that if the school zone was marked and officers could control the area, catching speeders, traffic cameras can too.

They wrote the answer rests with the “rules of statutory construction.”

“The court’s purpose when interpreting a statute is to enforce the intent of the Legislature,” they cited. “… If the statute is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation, it is ambiguous, and the court may resort to aids of statutory construction, including examining legislative history.”

Moreover, another Washington law permits that local legislative bodies should have the authority to analyze areas of need in the local community and provide for photo enforcement in “school zones” where heightened enforcement was needed to maximize the safety of children.

Emphasizing the city and police department are not representative of the judges’ decision in the matter, city spokesman Chris Carrel said providing safety for students getting to and from school is a paramount duty of local governments.

“The judges’ findings provide a clear explanation of that legal authority and the validity of the Saghalie school zone,” Carrel said.

Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang said city officials thoroughly researched the traffic safety program when it was first considered in 2008.

“… We have carefully thought out each of the three school zones that were selected, based on volume of traffic, numbers of ongoing violations and the risk to students,” he wrote in an email. “… As police chief, it is my hope that the drivers focus on practicing safe driving through the Saghalie school zone as all of our school zones to keep our school children safe.”

According to city data, the city issued 2,346 citations in the Saghalie school zone in 2013 and 2,783 in 2012.

Brewer said overall he doesn’t have anything against the photo systems when they’re legally placed and functioning properly.

“I do believe that it’s beneficial for the citizens and the police,” Brewer said. “It does allow for police officers to work elsewhere but at the same time the city has to make sure the systems are working correctly.”

Brewer said he’s yet to have anyone hire him for an appeal but if so, there’s always the possibility of appealing the ruling to Superior Court, which would then set a precedent for the citizens of Federal Way.

“I agree that these infractions, the judges at the municipal court [level], oftentimes they can have different rulings on the same issue,” he said. “But I believe that out of fairness for taxpaying citizens, there really should be some consistency across the board on the matter.”


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