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Kansas City’s red-light camera law is again in doubt

Updated: 2013-11-27T04:55:32Z

By LYNN HORSLEY

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City’s red-light camera law remains in legal limbo, and plans to restart the photographic policing of stoplight scofflaws stalled Tuesday.

The City Council had been poised to vote Tuesday afternoon on changes to the law that the city’s attorneys and council members thought would comply with a Nov. 5 Eastern District Missouri Court of Appeals ruling. The council had hoped those tweaks would allow Kansas City’s red-light camera program to resume early next month.

But Tuesday morning, the Western District Missouri Court of Appeals threw those plans for a loop. The appeals panel issued its own ruling in a different case that once again raised major qualms about the constitutionality of Kansas City’s red-light camera law.

The appeals judges reversed a decision by Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Dale Youngs. He had dismissed a lawsuit brought against Kansas City and American Traffic Solutions, which operates the red-light cameras for the city.

“We hold that the ordinance is invalid on the ground that it conflicts with state law,” the appeals court opinion said, “and is therefore void and unenforceable.”

A key issue for the court was that Kansas City’s ordinance allows a driver to commit a moving violation — running a traffic light — without points being assessed to a license. State law requires that moving violations be assessed points.

Faced with that latest ruling, the City Council postponed any rewrite of its law and said no further camera tickets will be issued until further notice. City Attorney Bill Geary declined to comment on the city’s next move.

Tuesday’s ruling doesn’t mean open season on running red lights in Kansas City, said Councilman John Sharp. The chairman of the council’s public safety committee said police assured him they will beef up patrol enforcement at the 17 red-light camera intersections.

“No one should think that just because the legal status of the red-light camera enforcement program is in some sort of legal limbo that somehow it’s OK to run red lights,” Sharp said.

The Western District case was filed by two people who each received notices of red-light camera violations. Their class action lawsuit challenging those notices was dismissed, but the Western District appellate panel sent the case back to the Jackson County Circuit Court for further review.

The appeals court said Kansas City’s ordinance conflicts with state law because it doesn’t assess points against the driver’s record. It also said serious questions exist, requiring further court review, over whether the city’s law is a revenue-raising scheme, whether the ordinance is criminal or civil in nature, and whether it is constitutional.

The Western District ruling continued a legal roller coaster that the City Council has been on with regard to its red-light camera law, which first took effect in early 2009. Since then, the city has issued 212,706 citations.

The red-light camera tickets faced legal challenges from the beginning in 2009, but the city thought it was settled law after an Eastern District appeals court panel in 2011 upheld the red-light camera program run by Creve Coeur and its camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions.

That ruling said a city could enact civil penalties similar to a parking ticket rather than a moving traffic violation. Kansas City tweaked its law in November 2011 to follow the Creve Coeur model.

But on Nov. 5, a different Eastern District panel overturned the Creve Coeur decision with a new ruling in which it voided the red-light camera law in Ellisville, a St. Louis suburb. Because Kansas City’s approach was similar to those in Ellisville and Creve Coeur, Kansas City halted enforcement while reviewing its legal options.

The Kansas City Council this week was trying to tweak the city’s law again to deal with the Ellisville ruling when the Western District decision raised even further concerns. Chiefly, city ordinance treats the red-light camera tickets as “non-moving violations” that don’t assess points against a driver’s license record.

Sharp said that wasn’t the city’s decision. Rather, he said the Missouri Department of Revenue made the decision that such cases would not involve points against a driver’s record.

Sharp said these competing rulings cry out for clarity from the Missouri Supreme Court.

“The letter of the law keeps changing,” he said. “We need definitive guidance on how to do this where we aren’t being expected to change our ordinances every other month.”

Sharp said he thought there might still be a way for Kansas City to craft changes to its ordinance next month to deal with the latest ruling. But Councilman Ed Ford, an attorney, wasn’t so sure. He said the main options are to ask for a new hearing before the full Western District Missouri Court of Appeals or transfer to the Supreme Court.

Or, he said, a third option is to have the latest case go back to circuit court for a full hearing on the merits of that case.

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

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