Missouri Supreme Court strikes down red-light cameras in St. Louis | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri Supreme Court strikes down red-light cameras in St. Louis

Aug 18, 2015

Updated with comments from attorneys, and the cities of St. Louis and St. Peters.

Getting caught on camera running a red light in St. Louis will no longer result in a fine.

In a 6-1 opinion issued Tuesday, the court called the city's ordinance governing red-light cameras unconstitutional because it assumes the owner of the car was the one driving the car at the time of the violation.

"... This court finds ordinance 66868 is constitutionally invalid because it creates a rebuttable presumption that shifts the burden of persuasion onto the defendant to prove that the defendant was not operating the motor vehicle at the time of the violation."

This is the third time a court has struck down the city's red-light camera ordinance. In 2013, Judge Mark Neill found the law unconstitutional because the state had never given cities the authority to enact such ordinances and because it violated due process. In 2014, Judge Steven Ohmer ruled that he city of St. Louis had been wrongfully enforcing an invalid ordinance, though he did not rule on the constitutional issues. That case resulted in Tuesday's Supreme Court decision. 

Credit (Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

Ohmer allowed the city to continue enforcing its red-light ordinance until the Supreme Court issued its ruling, though the money was put into an escrow account. Budget Director Paul Payne said the fund contained about $5 million as of June, though some of those funds were meant for the operator of the cameras, American Traffic Solutions. Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay, said officials would be looking to refund money to those who had paid their red-light camera fines.

The decision also casts doubt on a plan to hire additional officers for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Slay had intended to direct the $3.5 million generated a year to cover the salaries and first-year expenses of new officers. 

Also on Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision dismissing a red-light camera charge in St. Peters because it conflicts with a state law requiring points be assessed for a moving violation. The court ruled, however, that the invalid portion could be separated from the rest of the law, and allow enforcement of the law minus the severed portion going forward.

The court also agreed with a circuit court judge who threw out a speeding ticket issued from a speed camera in Moline Acres to KMOX radio personality Charlie Brennan. In that case, the judges ruled the ordinance was invalid because the document outlining the charges against Brennan and others violates due process protections.

The Ordinance violates two of the law’s most basic principles. First, the “power to inflict the penalty imposed by the ordinance cannot be exercised until there has been a judicial determination of the fact that the ordinance has been violated.” 9A McQuillin Mun. Corp. § 27:81 (3d ed.) (emphasis added). Second, before there can be such a “judicial determination,” due process requires that the City must “prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” City of Kansas City v. Oxley, 579 S.W.2d 113, 114 (Mo. banc 1979) (footnote omitted). One purpose served by these two principles is to prevent a municipality from threatening prosecution as a means of forcing a person to pay the City with no due process and no proof of guilt."

Resounding victory, or just a guide for future use?

"The citizens just won big, and the cities lost," said attorney Bevis Schock. "We did this for our clients, and also for the people of Missouri. Regular folks were getting hit with these tickets to fill the coffers of these municipalities with money that they frankly don’t need. It's an abusive process to the citizenry, and that has ended, at least in this corner, for a while." 

Attorneys Bevis Schock (L) and Hugh Eastwood (R) and two of their clients on Tuesday, August 18
Credit (Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

Most importantly, Schock said, in an era when municipal courts are in the spotlight, the judges specifically outlined the rights individuals had when facing a municipal violation.

"They never really laid out what the rights of a defendant were," Schock said. "We have fixed that in this state as a result of these cases. You have a right to notice, confront your accuser, the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the offense against you, the right to be presumed innocent."

Schock and his fellow attorney, Hugh Eastwood, admitted that the decisions left open narrow avenues by which cities could come into compliance. But Esatwood said it was unlikely government leaders would try.

"They have a tough road to hoe both legally and politically if they want to turn back on the spigot," he said. 

Michael Wolff, a former Supreme Court judge and the dean of the Saint Louis University law school, disagreed with Eastwood and Schock's analysis.

"It's not exactly a resounding victory," he said. "The court did not say you can't use cameras any more than a generation ago the courts did not say you couldn't use radar. Cameras are tools, and it is an effective tool, and the decisions merely established the guidelines for how you use them."

Wolff said the city of St. Louis especially has a "huge" incentive to come up with an ordinance that complies with the ruling.

"The city only has a certain number of police officers, and the city needs to deploy as many officers as it can in patrolling for crime and solving crimes," Wolff said. "It's a useful tool for the city to substitute cameras for having officers in cars watching intersections." 

The spokeswoman for Mayor Slay, Maggie Crane, said city attorneys are already working to draft an ordinance that will pass constitutional muster. A spokesman for St. Peters said the city is still reviewing the ruling, but that it had suspended its red light camera program last September, and permanently ended the contract in July. Voters in St. Charles County banned red light cameras last November, prompting a lawsuit from St. Peters and two neighboring cities. It's not immediately clear what impact Tuesday's ruling will have on that suit.

Officials with Moline Acres did not return a call for comment. 

In a statement, the company that operates many of the traffic enforcement cameras in Missouri, American Traffic Solutions, said the rulings "upheld the validity of using photo and video evidence in the enforcement of speeding and red-light running violations," and the company looks forward to helping cities develop ordinances that comply with today's rulings.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann