Time to Re-write Outdated Traffic Ordinances?

By Ildar Sagdejev, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ildar Sagdejev, via Wikimedia Commons

In Heien v. North Carolina, a police officer pulled over a car because he thought North Carolina law required that motor vehicles have two working brake lights.  It turns out the officer was wrong.  The North Carolina Court of Appeals concluded that state law requires motor vehicles to only have one working brake light.

So how did the court come to the novel conclusion? The relevant statute—which were more than a half a century old—referred “a” and “the” “stop lamp,” all singular.

When the driver and the passenger offered different stories as to where they were going, the officer asked to search the vehicle.  Consent was granted and cocaine was found.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether a traffic stop is permissible under the Fourth Amendment when it is based on an officer’s misunderstanding of the law.  The North Carolina Supreme Court reasoned that reasonableness is the “primary command” of the Fourth Amendment, “[a]ccordingly, requiring an officer to be more than reasonable, mandating that he be perfect, would impose a greater burden than that required under the Fourth Amendment.”

The court also pointed out that reasonable suspicion does not require an officer to actually view a violation of the law before making a stop.  And the court did not want to discourage police officers from stopping cars where they believe the law has been violated.

Three judges dissented criticizing the majority’s reasoning above and pointing out that “[b]y adopting the majority’s rule, we are not only potentially excusing mistakes of law in the exceedingly rare case when the Court of Appeals divines a novel interpretation of a statute, but also those mistakes of law that arise from simple misreadings of statutes, improper trainings or ignorance of recent legislative changes.”

Police officers misunderstanding traffic laws appears to be common.  In an Eleventh Circuit case (United States v. Chanthasouxat), an officer was trained to believe a city ordinance required an inside rear-view mirror and wrote more than 100 tickets for a lack of such a mirror.  But it turns out it wasn’t.

Police would obviously benefit from being given the benefit of the doubt regarding understanding and interpreting traffic laws.  If the Court reverses the North Carolina Supreme Court (and even if it doesn’t), cities should consider revising outdated traffic ordinances so that misunderstandings of law are less common.

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Developing a Shared Vision for Educational Alignment Beyond the Classroom

This post was written by Tonja Rucker, Principal Associate for Early Childhood at NLC. The post also appears on the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s blog.

Ft. Worth mom and son reading

Historically, education and human service systems have developed independently from each other despite sharing a common purpose.  Insufficient communication and coordination among systems and programs for young children can make transitions difficult and lead to missed educational opportunities.

Researchers, practitioners and policymakers increasingly believe that a more seamless pipeline that addresses a range of academic, behavioral, health and family issues can serve young children more effectively.  City officials are working on alignment efforts on behalf of young children from birth to eight that go well beyond the classroom to include strengthening connections within their communities and linking families to a broad range of supports and opportunities that help them thrive.

Through the National League of Cities’ Educational Alignment initiative six cities – Austin and Fort Worth, Texas; Longmont, Colorado; Hartford, Connecticut; Rochester, New York; and Richmond, Virginia – are receiving technical assistance to help city leaders ensure the healthy development and education of children and increase the likelihood that children will achieve educational success by the end of third grade. In several of these cities, leaders are working with or coordinating the Grade-Level Reading coalitions.

To address challenges, municipal leaders are bringing together key stakeholders to improve early education and strengthen local schools, provide better alignment between preschool and school-based learning, and improve transitions as children move from one level to the next.

Key elements of this technical assistance from NLC include:

  • Helping six cities develop a shared vision for educational alignment and cultivate partnerships among city leaders, school boards, superintendents, principals, early educators, youth development professionals and the larger community;
  • Providing on-site guidance through carefully designed site visits, a cross-site meeting and monthly webinars/conference calls to help the six cities share challenges, discuss strategies, connect to national experts, and develop new approaches for educational alignment;
  • Developing a robust peer network of local leaders in 6 states to deepen their understanding of the core elements of a well-aligned system, cultivate local champions, identify effective strategies, and facilitate cross-city learning; and
  • Conduct statewide summits in four of the cities to facilitate intergovernmental partnerships on early learning among city, state and federal officials. The statewide  mayoral summits will be designed to help local and state leaders learn about each other’s perspectives, initiatives and policies.

Tonja Rucker headshotAbout the Author: Tonja Rucker is a Principle Associate for Early Childhood in the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at NLC.

Anonymous Tip: No Corroboration? No problem!


By versageek, via Wikimedia Commons

Does an anonymous, unverified tip of dangerous driving justify a traffic stop? Yes, says a divided Supreme Court.

In Prado Navarette v. California, an anonymous 911 caller reported that a vehicle had run her off the road.  The Court held 5-4 that a police stop complied with the Fourth Amendment because, under the totality of the circumstances, the officers had reasonable suspicion that the driver was intoxicated.  When police stopped the Navarette brothers they smelled marijuana.  A search of the vehicle revealed 30 pounds of marijuana.

The Court’s rationale, in an opinion written by Justice Thomas, is as follows.  The tip of dangerous driving was sufficiently reliable because by identifying specific details about the vehicle the caller necessarily claimed eyewitness knowledge of what happened, police located the vehicle where the caller indicated it would be and the caller used the 911 system, which readily identifies callers and therefore discourages them from lying.

Driving someone off the road creates reasonable suspicion of drunk driving because “[t]hat conduct bears too great a resemblance to paradigmatic manifestations of drunk driving to be dismissed as an isolated example of recklessness.”

While the officer didn’t observe additional suspicious conduct after spotting the vehicle and observing it for five minutes, police do not have to give suspected drunk drivers a “second chance for dangerous conduct [that] could have disastrous consequences.”

Justice Thomas described this case as “close.”

Justice Scalia, in a dissent joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan, accused the majority of departing from normal Fourth Amendment requirements that anonymous tips be corroborated.  “Law enforcement agencies follow closely our judgments on matters such as this, and they will identify at once our new rule: So long as the caller identifies where the car is, anonymous claims of a single instance of possibly careless or reckless driving, called in to 911, will support a traffic stop.”

Read more about this case on SCOTUSblog.

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Ruling Likely to Affect Local Government


The Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action ruling should be viewed through the lens of public employment and contracts not just public universities.

In Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action the Supreme Court held 6-2 that voters may by ballot prohibit affirmative action in public universities admission decisions.  While this case was limited to the use of race in public university admission decisions, Michigan’s constitutional amendment also prohibits the use of racial-preference in state and local government employment and contracting.

Presumably, these provisions are also constitutional.  As NCSL’s Affirmative Action:  State Action chart describes, a number of states prohibit the use of affirmative action in local government employment and contracting.

In 2003 in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, involving the University of Michigan, the Supreme Court held that public universities may consider race in admission decisions.  In 2006 Michigan voters adopted a constitutional amendment which prohibited preferential treatment in admission to public universities on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

The majority of the Court held this amendment does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Justice Kennedy, in a plurality opinion joined only by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, concluded that this case is about who and not how the debate over racial preferences should be resolved.  “There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this Court’s precedents for the Judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”

In reaching this holding Justice Kennedy rejected a broad reading of past precedent that any state action with a “racial focus” that makes it “more difficult for certain racial minorities than for other groups” to “achieve legislation that is in their interest” is subject to strict scrutiny.

Justice Kennedy pointed to numerous practical problems with this so-called “political process” doctrine including:  assuming that all individuals of the same race think alike; defining race-based categories in a society where “those lines are becoming more blurred;” and determining which policy realms racial groups have a political interest.

Justices Scalia and Thomas agreed that the ballot measure was constitutional but would have overruled the precedent that Justice Kennedy read narrowly.  For the first time since she joined the Court in 2009, Justice Sotomayor read a summary of her dissent, which Justice Ginsberg joined, from the bench—signaling her displeasure with the Court’s decision.

Justice Breyer provided the sixth vote in favor of the amendment but wrote separately; Justice Kagan did not participate in the case.

While those for and against the ballot measure disagree about the wisdom of the Court’s decision, both agree that it will only be a matter of time until more states follow Michigan’s lead.

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Ride Sharing: The Big Opportunity for Cities

By Pkg203, via Wikimedia Commons

By Pkg203, via Wikimedia Commons

Uber, Lyft and Sidecar present cities with the opportunity to radically transform transportation in their communities. If cities make use of the lessons they are learning from work with car share firms like Zip Car and with bike share programs, they are likely to achieve remarkable success in the newest iteration of the sharing economy.

However, if current trends are any indication, city taxi commissions see these companies primarily as threats to the established order and are seeking regulatory solutions where a little entrepreneurship might be more properly applied.

The outlook is not at all rosy for the car share firms. A dozen cities are either writing citations to Lyft and Uber drivers, issuing cease and desist orders to the companies, or banning operations outright. To be fair, many cities are also seeking to catch up with the application of technology to this otherwise static public service, so I remain optimistic.

It matters little whether companies such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are called Transportation Network Companies or traditional taxi and limousine services. The simple fact remains that existing regulatory frameworks for taxis in cities became outmoded with the advent of the smartphone and the app. The sooner taxi commissioners embrace this reality the sooner they will find the path out of the regulatory maze.

Of course cities have some obligation to regulate services to the general public within their jurisdictions. But where is it written that the basis of such regulation must be the existing formula for traditional dispatch taxicabs? What is it that cities need to actually regulate that is not presently required as part of qualifying for a driving license? Enhanced driver training? Premium vehicle liability insurance? Universal service? Car specifications (color, model, age)? Competition? Price? A case probably can be made for the first two or three but not so much for the latter three.

In 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission issued a ruling that allowed Lyft and Uber to operate under less rigid rules than locally regulated taxis. As recently as this week, a federal judge in Houston declined to temporarily restrain Lyft and Uber from operating in Houston and San Antonio. A further hearing is set for July 15, perhaps providing time for the cities and the companies to hammer out an agreement.

The sharing economy offers opportunities for cities to increase the options available for those in need of transportation, lodging (see Airbnb and its similar challenges) and a range of other services not yet envisioned. The sharing economy represents the highest form of individual entrepreneurship and as such deserves the chance to grow and contribute to the daily life and economic prosperity of city residents.

When a company called Flex Car (later bought by Zip Car) arrived in cities more than a decade ago, the transformation was revolutionary. Cities did the unthinkable – they gave up precious curbside parking spaces to a private company to place universally accessible cars in proximity to people in need of wheels for a short-term errand.

Cities created a new regulatory paradigm for this new and much sought after service. I own a car and still signed up in the first month the company offered services in my city (I’m still a member all these years later.) That same spirit of innovation needs to be applied to the likes of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, and to their successors.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.


3 Ways Cities are Leading in Energy Innovation

This is the second blog in a series on why the key to protecting our environment lies in city innovation.


This word cloud captures city leaders’ responses when asked to describe their commitment to sustainability.

It’s no accident that “energy” is one of the main components of city sustainability plans. If we drilled down, much of these efforts likely focus on buildings. With buildings representing 39 percent of the nation’s energy use, 72 percent of electricity use and one third of all global greenhouse gas emissions, city leaders know that a key to meeting their sustainability goals lies in reducing the energy use of their building stock, whether by encouraging energy efficiency or renewable energy use, or both.

As the Georgetown Energy Prize launches today, and in continued celebration of Earth Day (and really, shouldn’t every day be Earth Day), below are some game changers in city energy:

1. Net Zero Energy Use – Fort Collins, CO and Salt Lake City

From the country’s first net zero energy district to the first net zero public safety building, cities are innovating with technical solutions to reduce energy use.

The City of Fort Collins, along with Colorado State University and the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster in 2007 created the nation’s first net zero energy district, FortZED, to produce more energy than it uses from both electric and thermal sources.

Using smart grid technology and renewable energy sources, FortZED has the potential to create 200-300 new permanent jobs focusing on clean energy, energy conservation and the systems to support smart grids.

The Salt Lake City Public Safety Building is the first public safety building in the nation to achieve a net zero rating. Home to the city’s police and fire departments as well as emergency dispatchers, the 175,000-square-foot building utilizes a vast array of rooftop solar panels, as well as an off-site solar farm, to achieve the net zero rating.

Whereas a traditional building of this size would produce 2670 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, this building will produce just 524 metric tons per year.

2. PACE Programs Move Forward – South Florida and Los Angeles

In September 2013, the cities of Miami, Miami Shores, South Miami, Pinecrest, Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay and Coral Gables, Florida jointly formed the Clean Energy Green Corridor with YGrene Energy Fund to launch Florida’s first Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program enabling property owners to finance renewable energy, energy efficiency upgrades and hurricane protection measures over the long-term through their property tax bill.

The South Florida PACE program is one of seven active residential PACE programs, despite objections from the Federal Housing Finance Agency. NLC supports legislative efforts to allow state and local governments to develop and implement such programs.

Meanwhile, cities continue to develop commercial PACE programs to offer these same benefits of reducing the high upfront costs and reaping long-term cost savings to the business community.

To date there are 26 active commercial PACE programs, and more than $60 million in financing extended for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, the biggest of which is a $7 million project at the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City.

3. Green Design for Affordable Housing – Seattle

Building on the theme of equity that my colleague Neil Bomberg has written about in connection with the World Urban Forum, city leaders realize that sustainable design practices are not just for the wealthy and that affordable housing doesn’t have to mean lower quality housing.

According to the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI), of which NLC is a partner, low-income households typically spend 14 percent of their total income on energy costs compared with 3.5 percent for other households.

By incorporating energy efficient appliances, lighting and windows, tankless hot water heaters and whole house fans, among other amenities, into affordable and mixed-income housing, the High Point Redevelopment project in Seattle provides numerous health and environmental benefits to all income levels—not to mention reduced utility expenses for residents.

The retention of 100 mature trees, not only adds aesthetic value, but reduces home energy costs and carbon emissions.

Carolyn Berndt

About the author: Carolyn Berndt is the Principal Associate for Infrastructure and Sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change, and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.


WUF7: Final Thoughts on My Week in Medellin

This is the seventh post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.


Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to a tour of the city of Medellin, the trip would have been worth it. This is truly a city on the rise. Gone is the violence and narco-terror for which the city was famous. In its place is a young, vibrant city filled with new libraries and schools serving some of the poorest neighborhoods; parks that include concert halls, a planetarium and computer learning centers; and a metro system that runs the length and width of the city, employing traditional rail cars, cable cars and escalators.

Its town center or “el Centro” is filled with the wonderful and massive sculptures of Fernando Botero, a Medellin native, whose work is wonderfully sardonic and sarcastic at the same time, and includes a small gem of a museum that proudly displays Colombia’s pre-Columbian, colonial and modern artists. Its neighborhoods are diverse and reflective of a city that is growing but retaining a “small town” feel. Looking out over the city at night from a bar atop the Charlee Hotel in the Poblado, one can feel the pulsating rhythms of this increasingly successful business center.

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to participation in the mayor’s roundtable on urban equity and the new urban agenda, the trip also would have been worth it. This was truly a roundtable that demonstrated the optimism that exists among city leaders from around the world to create “cities of opportunity” — cities where the poorest and most disadvantaged are able to take advantage of what their city has to offer so they can create a better life for themselves and their families.

As I reported in my fourth and fifth blogs, in its broadest sense, the message of the mayors forum was cities are on the rise as economic centers, centers of innovation and centers of learning — what we have chosen to call “cities of opportunity” — and that cities are replacing individual states and nations as the places in which “real change is taking place.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to attending the various “dialogues” that focused on city resiliency and financing, the trip also would have been worth it. For here the conversations focused on how to finance cities, and how to build cities that can respond to and come back from natural and man-made disasters, but not just for the benefit of the few, but in a way that promotes inclusion and social equity.

Though the solutions that were offered are costly, what was clear is that to do nothing would be even more costly. And though it is much easier to make decisions from the top down, or to make investments that benefit the wealthiest residents, for a city to thrive and grow, every resident must be included in the decision making process, regardless of their income or social standing, and every citizen must be viewed as a likely beneficiary of the investments made.

As Michael Cohen, a professor at the New School (New York) said, it is no longer feasible to operate the way Buenos Aires and New York City have operated until now, where 60 percent of the expenditures benefit the wealthiest 11 percent of the population. “If our cities are to be financially sustainable we must find ways to effectively leverage our resources to the benefit of all.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to hearing Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia University economics professor and Nobel laureate, speak passionately about the need for national and local governments to take meaningful steps to end inequality and create opportunity through investments in education, job creation and small business, the trip would have been worth it. Had it been limited to hearing Leon Krier, the famous and highly controversial architect, urban planner and architectural theorist, the trip would have been worth it. His desire to create urban environments that are inclusive but limited in size, and therefore more humane in scale, rang true as we sat in the midst of a city whose one-time modest scale has given way to skyscrapers as far as the eye can see.

Finally, had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to visiting the exhibit hall and witnessing what nations and cities around the world are doing to address inequality and create cities of opportunity – from Barcelona to Jerusalem, Guangzhou to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires to Paris – the trip would have been worth it.

But in fact, this trip to the World Urban Forum 7 and Medellin, Colombia, was worth it for reasons that transcended each of its parts. It was a place for people from around the world to exchange ideas and learn from one another. It was a place where creativity was acknowledged and innovation rewarded. It was a place where one’s status as part of the developed or developing worlds did not seem to matter – everyone had something important to offer.

And it was a place that confirmed what we at the National League of Cities have long stated: cities are the laboratories of innovation and creativity, and the solutions to the world’s urban settlement problems will not happen because of national government. Rather, the solutions will emerge at the local level through the commitment of mayors and other local officials, private sector leaders who share the goal of creating “cities of opportunity,” as well as foundations, non-governmental organizations and universities.

This conference left no doubt: if those who live and work in cities are able to come together to create inclusive, resilient and financially sustainable cities, then the urban future is a very bright one, indeed.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.