Photo Red Light Camera Cases

Three recent cases discussed in my Post on January 13, 2014  “Red light camera ordinances suffer setback” have changed a number of conclusions in this Post. Since some of these cases are not final and the law at this time is in a state of flux I am waiting until we get a final decision from the Missouri Supreme Court before I revise this Post. Hopefully,  the impact on a number of statements in this Post can be gauged by my Post on January 13, 2014.

Red light camera ordinances have been one of the most hotly and frequently contested issues in recent times.  Lining up are proponents who believe that traffic safety can be improved by slowing down vehicles to the speed limit and by reducing the number of serious accidents at intersections where there are red light cameras. For a general discussion on the use of red light photo cameras in Missouri see my earlier Post. I confess,  I am a believer based on my own personal experience as a city prosecutor that the use of photo red light cameras can reduce serious accidents at controlled  intersections. See my earlier Post on Red Light Photo Camera Update.

Photo Red Light cameras help prevent serious T bone accidents

Photo Red Light cameras help prevent serious T bone accidents

Opponents are vociferous in their opposition arguing that red light cameras are just a way to raise revenue and deny citizens their rights.

Procedures for red light cameras take away our rights

Procedures for red light cameras take away our rights

In the last several months we have had three cases involving photo red light cameras all from the Eastern District. Many of the important issues have been resolved in favor of local government but there have been some technical glitches and at least several major issues still remain to be resolved. Principles established by these cases are as follows:

  • If notice of the municipal court violation of the ordinance is proper there is no right to declaratory and equitable relief because there is an adequate remedy at law in municipal court to challenge the ordinance.
  • Cities have authority (charter or 304.120 RSMo.) to enact traffic ordinance under its police power because traffic regulation is rationally related to public safety and welfare.
  • There is no claim for unjust enrichment or return of the fine for a violation of a city ordinance when it has been paid voluntarily.
  • There is no waiver of defendants right to challenge an ordinance in municipal court when the city fails to give notice of a court date and time and information on how to challenge the violation as required by the Supreme Court Rules governing municipal court.
  •  Rebuttable presumptions are valid in Missouri.
  • The photo red light camera ordinance adopted by Creve Coeur creating a “violation of public safety”  a non moving violation does not conflict with state law while the ordinance adopted by Florissant conflicts with state law since it is based on running a red light, a moving violation, which  city officials were prohibited from  reporting  to the DOR,  in an apparent attempt to avoid backlash from the assessment of points on the driver’s license.
  • A challenge to a red light camera ordinance on the grounds that it was enacted just to raise revenue – not for safety purposes – is a fact question as to whether or not there  is a  rationale basis for the ordinance. Fact questions cannot be determined based on a motion to dismiss.

The  cases establishing the above principles are discussed below.

St. Louis Case 

The first case Smith v. City of St. Louis (City) was a class action and a declaratory judgment challenging a City ordinance, which authorized the installation and use of red light cameras at dangerous intersections to detect and prosecute violations of existing City traffic ordinances pertaining to traffic signals. The Ordinance created a presumption that the owner of the motor vehicle was the operator of the vehicle at the time and place of the violation, thereby allowing prosecution against the owner of the vehicle. A statement from the owner may rebut the presumption that the vehicle was being operated by a person other than the owner or that the vehicle or its license plate was stolen. The City filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied and granted in part.  The parties appealed to the Eastern District.

Court of Appeals - Eastern District

Court of Appeals – Eastern District

The Eastern District held that there was no waiver of the right to challenge the St. Louis ordinance by paying the fine as directed in the notice of violation because the notice provided to the motorist was insufficient to comply with state court rules by failing to give of the time and place as well as how to challenge the charge in court. Notices should follow exactly the rules that govern municipal court violations; therefore the ordinance was invalid as applied, although the voluntary payment doctrine precluded the motorist from receiving a refund of the fine that was paid. The court further ruled that the City ordinance was a valid exercise of the city’s police power under the city charter and the state law (304.120.2) governing the rules of the road.  In addition, to the extent the petition claimed equitable relief there is an adequate remedy at law in municipal court; therefore there was no right to a declaratory judgment. For a   discussion of the trial courts decision in the St. Louis  case see my earlier Post, which predicted that the decision of Judge Neill would be reversed. 

City of Florissant Case

Appellant’s received red light camera tickets from the City of Florissant (Florissant) stating that they had committed a “Violation of Public Safety (Failure to Stop at a Red Light)” in violation of a Florissant municipal ordinance (“the Ordinance”). Appellants’ alleged the Ordinance violated their due process rights and the privilege against self-incrimination; sought declaratory judgment regarding the validity and constitutionality of the Ordinance and its enforcement; asserted a claim of civil conspiracy; and asserted claims of unjust enrichment. Florissant and ATS filed motions to dismiss Appellants petition alleging, that Appellants’ constitutional claims should be dismissed on the basis of standing, waiver, and estoppel, which was sustained. The trial court also addressed the Appellants’ substantive issues and dismissed each count with prejudice. Appellants’ appealed part of the trial court’s judgment to the Eastern District.  

The Eastern District held that Appellants, Cusumanos had an adequate remedy at law to challenge the proceedings in municipal court because the summons they received provided the date and time and information concerning their rights to challenge the violation. With respect to the claims brought by Appellant, Unverferth, the petition alleged that the notice provided to Unverferth did not have the date to appear or how to challenge the charge; therefore the Eastern District reversed holding that Unverferth had standing to challenge the Ordinance and that she did not waive her claims, remanding these issues for further proceedings.

The Eastern District also reversed the trial court’s judgment declaring the Ordinance valid and dismissing Count I since the Appellants plead that Florissant exceeded its authority by enacting the Ordinance for the purpose of raising municipal revenue and not to regulate traffic or promote safety, which is a fact question that cannot be decided by a motion to dismiss.  In addition, the judgment of the trial court dismissing Appellants’ claim for declaratory judgment was also reversed because the Ordinance conflicts with state statutes regulating moving violations by directing that Florissant not report to the DOR violations for running a red light. Appellants adequately plead that the Ordinance and its application denied them notice, a fair hearing, and adequate procedural protections as required under Missouri Supreme Court Rules and Article I, Section 10 of the Missouri Constitution.  Whether the Ordinance, as enacted or applied, violated Appellants’ procedural due process rights is a factual question that is not appropriate for resolution on Respondents’ motions to dismiss. Appellants are entitled to pursue discovery and present facts in support of properly pleaded allegations.  The Eastern District affirmed the trial court’s judgment in all other respects.  Unverferth v. City of Florissant

Creve Coeur Case

Respondents received violation notices from Creve Coeur alleging that they had violated Creve Coeur’s red light camera ordinance (“the Ordinance”) and challenged the Ordinance in a six-count, class action petition.  Appellants brought a declaratory judgment challenging the Ordinance’s constitutionality and conformity with state law, as well as Creve Coeur’s authority to enact the Ordinance.  Appellants also claimed the Ordinance violated procedural due process and the privilege against self-incrimination, and they alleged claims of unjust enrichment and civil conspiracy.  The City of Creve Coeur and American Traffic Solutions, Inc. (“Respondents”) filed a joint motion to dismiss, that was granted by the trial court, which was appealed to the Eastern District.

Because Appellants can challenge the ordinance in the municipal court proceeding, there is an adequate remedy at law; therefor, equitable relief is barred. However whether or not the ordinance was properly enacted in accordance with Creve Coeur’s police power for regulating public safety cannot be decided on a motion to dismiss because the Appellants allege that the Ordinance was enacted as a revenue-generating mechanism advanced under the guise of Creve Coeur’s police power, which is a fact question that is not appropriate for resolution on a motion to dismiss; therefore, this portion of the trial court’s judgment was remanded for further proceedings.  In addition, voluntary payment of the fine bars a recovery of the payment and related claims.  Judge Mooney, authored a vigorous dissent based on the grounds that the ordinance as applied violated the rules of the road since the ordinance is a legal fiction that converts a moving violation into a non-moving violation in order to avoid reporting the violation to the Department of Revenue.Ballard v. City of Creve Coeur For an earlier Post see my discussion of a case upholding the validity of the Creve Coeur ordinance as a non-moving violation.

Based on the above cases it seem like the eye of the needle has gotten smaller.  As to whether or not the photo red light ordinance was enacted to raise revenue it seems to me that the revenues from the enforcement should count as part of the entire traffic program of the city and that reporting the violation as a moving violation just ups the ante.

Also the General Assembly established in 2013 that 30% was the maximum of  the total city budget that could be raised by traffic enforcement (HB-103) strongly suggesting  that this is a legislative matter, and that the courts should refrain from entering the  fray as judicial activists.

Howard Wright @ 2013

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