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Missouri court says red-light camera laws like those in KC are invalid

Updated: 2013-11-07T16:05:55Z

By LYNN HORSLEY and MARK MORRIS

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City suspended enforcement of its red-light camera program Wednesday in the wake of a Missouri appeals court ruling that concluded most such ordinances violate state law.

City Manager Troy Schulte and other city officials said this week’s ruling caught them off guard because it contradicted an earlier ruling, from the same appeals court, upholding a law very similar to Kansas City’s.

“We’re still trying to figure out what all our options are,” Schulte said.

The latest ruling stemmed from cases in Ellisville, a far-western suburb of St. Louis. With that decision tossing Kansas City’s ordinance in limbo, Kansas City will not enforce about 5,600 pending red-light camera tickets or more than 16,000 warrants out for unpaid red-light camera fines.

Kansas City started its red-light camera program in early 2009. For most of the time since then, the city has operated 29 cameras at 17 intersections. More than 190,000 tickets have been issued, although the number has dropped in the past two years as people became savvy to where the cameras might catch them.

City officials had thought the red-light camera issue was settled law after the Missouri Court of Appeals’ Eastern District ruled in 2011 that red-light camera use in Creve Couer was legal.

That ruling sided with Creve Coeur and its camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions. It said the city could enact civil penalties similar to a parking ticket rather than a moving traffic violation.

Kansas City’s red-light camera law was modeled after the Creve Coeur ordinance, and the city uses the same vendor.

But Tuesday’s ruling from the Eastern District Court of Appeals directly contradicted that earlier decision.

Writing for the appeals panel, Judge Kurt S. Odenwald said Ellisville’s red-light ordinance was void because it regulated vehicle owners, while a state law governing running red lights clearly regulated drivers.

“The ordinance unmistakably permits what the (state) prohibits — prosecution and penalization of persons who are neither drivers nor pedestrians for running a red light,” Odenwald wrote.

Since running a red light obviously involves movement, Odenwald concluded, Ellisville’s ordinance runs afoul of a state law requiring municipal courts to report moving violations to the state.

“By failing to require the municipal court to report a violation of the ordinance as a moving violation … Ellisville permits what state law prohibits — a moving violation without the assessment of points,” Odenwald wrote. “Because the ordinance allows a driver to commit a moving violation without being assessed points on his or her license, the ordinance conflicts with Missouri law.”

The court acknowledged that it had reversed the position it took two years ago in the Creve Coeur case, saying that is “no longer good law.”

An attorney for four couples who challenged Ellisville’s ordinance said the ruling has broad implications statewide. A lawyer representing American Traffic Solutions disagreed with the court’s decision and predicted the matter will ultimately be decided by the Missouri Supreme Court.

Bill Geary, who heads Kansas City’s law department, said Wednesday he had not talked with Ellisville’s city attorney but fully expected a request to put the case to the full Court of Appeals.

The Missouri Supreme Court could make the final decision, Geary said, but likely not for months.

Kansas City Councilman John Sharp, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, hoped the latest decision will ultimately be overturned.

He conceded the red-light camera program is unpopular with people when they get a ticket. But he argued it has reduced red-light running in the city and has improved public safety.

“This was both very surprising and very distressing,” Sharp said of the ruling. “The figures clearly show that red-light camera enforcement dramatically decreases crashes, particularly T-bone crashes, and saves lives.”

The red-light camera program also feeds the city’s budget.

The city has netted about $2 million per year in fine revenue since the program began.

ATS receives $4,500 per camera per month from the city, or $1.6 million per year, no matter how many tickets are issued. City officials are reviewing whether they have to continue those payments while the legal case is pending.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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