Missouri appeals court cases could decide future of red light cameras

The state appeals court here heard arguments Wednesday in several cases that will help determine how red-light cameras are operated across Missouri — if they are allowed at all.

The Eastern District Missouri Court of Appeals has previously held that municipalities can use the cameras to ticket red-light runners if the offense is treated more like a parking violation, citing the vehicle versus the driver, and is civil in nature. That decision, in 2011, dealt with a $100 ticket that Mary Nottebrok received for violating Creve Coeur’s red-light ordinance in August 2009.

But on Wednesday, an attorney representing different violators asked a three-judge panel to consider additional factors that he argued should invalidate Creve Coeur’s ordinance.

Arguments were also made relative to red-light camera ordinances in Florissant and St. Louis, which are similar to each other in set-up but differ from Creve Coeur’s ordinance.

St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Thomas DePriest Jr. upheld Florissant’s ordinance in May 2012. But St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Mark Neill struck down the St. Louis ordinance in February 2012.

For several years now, red-light runners have been unclear as to whether they should pay the tickets they receive in the mail, as the court challenges have unfolded. For example, St. Louis has continued to issue notices since the 2012 ruling and officials have warned violators that they better pay up.

The appeals court rulings on these cases — not expected for several months — should provide more certainty.

It’s conceivable that the court could strike down each of the ordinances and make it nearly impossible for municipalities to issue tickets on red-light cameras, which are operated by private companies. But it’s equally plausible that the court would provide a mixed bag of decisions that together would better guide municipalities in drafting their ordinances and violation notices.

A Jefferson County judge’s upholding of the red-light camera ordinance in Arnold still needs to be heard by the appeals court. And another case, challenging Hazelwood’s ordinance, is still pending in St. Louis County Circuit Court. The Western District Missouri Court of Appeals is also scheduled to hear a red-light camera case out of Kansas City on March 20.

In all of the Eastern District cases, the red-light cameras are run by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based American Traffic Solutions. The company has been in St. Louis since November 2005, operating cameras at 31 intersections and allowing the city to issue over 200,000 tickets in the first five years.

The company on Wednesday cited a decrease in those violations — ranging from 23 percent to 87 percent, depending on the intersection — as evidence that the cameras are working to improve safety. The company noted 77 percent of all red-light violators in the city only did so once, and 92 percent only twice.

Data for Florissant and Creve Coeur was not available on Wednesday.

Ryan Keane, the attorney fighting the Creve Coeur and Florissant ordinances, asserted in court that different studies have shown the cameras actually cause more accidents.

“We have a serious problem in the state that affects all of us,” he said. “Multimillion-dollar, for-profit, out-of-state companies are contracting with municipalities in the state to generate financial windfalls … to the detriment of our safety.”

He argued the Creve Coeur ordinance is contradictory by being civil in nature but relying upon public safety rationale for enforcement. If the latter, he said, the city must abide by state law and ticket the driver.

Keane criticized the Florissant ordinance for punishing the car owner without making any attempt to determine who was driving, instead putting that burden on the ticket recipient. Keane also argued the Florissant ordinance is criminal in nature, but doesn’t provide proper notice for appeal with a court date and time.

Russell Watters, the attorney fighting the St. Louis ordinance, made similar arguments. He said the city, right now, is giving cameras power that police do not have: the ability to go after a vehicle owner even if the driver’s information hasn’t been obtained. He provided the example of a police officer being powerless to issue a ticket if he sees a car speeding but only gets a license plate number.

Attorneys for the cities and camera company argued the municipal ordinances are separate from the state law governing red-light running and do not have to ticket the driver. They also pointed out the initial notices in St. Louis and Florissant do suggest an opportunity to appeal the ticket and, if it’s ignored, a second notice provides the court information.

The attorneys contended violators who paid their tickets don’t have standing to bring appeals on due process grounds because they had already, in effect, admitted guilt. For those who haven’t paid, said John Hessel, representing Florissant, the place to contest it is the lower courts, and “if they want to raise these constitutional questions, bring it on.”