For what seems to have been an eternity local government has spent time, energy and public treasure litigating and fighting political battles with citizens over the use of automated cameras to enforce ordinances prohibiting the running of red lights and speeding with disastrous consequences. On August 18, 2015, the Missouri Supreme Court brought to a head most of the remaining issues in this long-standing saga, when it issued three separate opinions relating to the use of automated cameras to enforce ordinances prohibiting speeding and running red lights.
The City of Moline Acres decision is examined separately from the other two cases decided on August 18, 2015 by the Missouri Supreme Court (St. Louis and St. Peters) because the Moline case represents such a wide departure from the rule of law that it deserves special attention. Before plunging into the Moline Acres case, a little bit of background showing how automated camera traffic enforcement ordinances generally work is useful.
The process of charging a person with running a red light or speeding, using an automated camera system, will vary depending upon the particular ordinance; nevertheless, the ordinance usually relies upon a presumption that the owner of the vehicle is the driver. Once a picture is obtained showing the license plate the owner is notified of the violation and is provided an opportunity to either contest the charge or pay the fine. Some ordinances also provide that a picture is taken of the driver. The city usually relies upon a rebuttable presumption that the owner is the driver of the vehicle although if a picture is also taken of the driver the city has the option to prosecute based upon identification of the owner/driver. If the owner of the vehicle wants to contest the charge, the owner can appear in court challenging the presumption. Most defendants simply pay the fine and move on with their business.
These ordinances have generated enormous sums of revenues. Moline Acres was no exception, generating almost 30% of its general revenues from traffic fines and court costs. This was approximately $705,000 per year for a town of 2,500 that is 5/7th’s of a square mile. St. Louis recently returned some $5.4 million in revenue to citizens collected over a period of about one year for running red lights after its red light camera ordinance was found to be invalid. One third of the Moline revenues went to the private company administering the automated camera system. Recent studies in the St. Louis area show that a very high percentage of these charges fall upon poor minorities who have limited resources leading to other problems.
Under the Moline Acres ordinance there was a violation if the owner<strong> permitted</strong> the “motor vehicle to be operated at a rate in excess of the posted speed limit.” What! If that sounds weird, it is. In order to prove that the owner permitted the vehicle to be operated in excess of the speed limit the ordinance created a presumption that the owner gave the driver permission to exceed the speed limit. Imagine handing the keys to your car and telling the driver that he or she has your permission to exceed the speed limit. This is laughable and totally illogical.
The Court agreed and made short work of this by noting that presumptions must be based upon an inference that is “within the limits of reason” in order to be valid by any standard. In other words, there must exist some sort of “rational basis” for the presumption in order to make the presumption valid. What were the public officials in Moline thinking? To answer that, just follow the money.
To make matters worse, Moline Acres established an administrative process totally outside the judicial system. It worked like this. A City official would send a letter asking the owner of the vehicle to send $124 to take care of the violation or if the owner failed to remit the $124 Moline would initiate prosecution in the Municipal Court. This was an extrajudicial rump procedure totally outside the law, different from any other city. The Missouri Supreme Court did not like this, excoriating City of Moline Acres officials by stating:
“There is a word for threatening someone with legal claims or charges if they do not make a large and prompt payment, but that word is not “notice.” And there is a word for money paid to keep claims of wrongdoing from being made public, but that word is not “fine.”
Was the Court was suggesting extortion, abuse of process or something else? It is clear that Moline Acres crossed the line into another universe.
During the litigation Moline Acres sensed that its community image was suffering and needed to be improved; therefore, Moline Acres launched a “positive ticketing” program that authorized police officers to stop vehicles when they were operating totally within the law in order to call attention to the good driving habits by giving the driver a coupon, which could be redeemed for a pizza. In other words, a police officer with sirens blaring and lights on would stop a vehicle operating within the law in order to hand the driver a smiley face coupon for a free pizza in recognition of the drivers good driving habits. Would you be relieved to get a smiley face ticket for free pizza or mad as hell because a police officer stopped you without cause? What is positive about that? The source of this harebrained scheme was Larry Rice, a well-known community activist for the homeless who recently had a homeless shelter shutdown in St. Louis for code violations.
This case shows a dysfunctional government that engaged in a deliberate scheme to defraud the public that was motivated by greed without regard for the rule of law. Judge Draper called it a “blatant money grab.” Judge Draper stated that: “This court should be cognizant of the times in which these ordinances are being enforced in light of the recent criticisms of St. Louis County municipalities, which have used the revenues they generate to enrich their coffers to the financial detriment of the citizens they were ostensibly representing.”
So how do local governmental officials avoid problems like this? First, get an opinion from legal counsel concerning the validity of the ordinance prior to its adoption. Public officials benefit from the defense of absolute immunity for their legislative actions particularly when they have been advised by legal counsel. If the opinion is that the ordinance is not valid they should not adopt the ordinance.
The comments in the Moline Acres case suggest potential liability for Moline Acres and public officials because the actions taken by the City were so beyond the pale of law as to constitute a reckless disregard for due process rights of those threatened with prosecution. In addition, Moline Acres may also be subject to class action lawsuits to recover payments.
The other two cases decided by the Missouri Supreme Court relating to automated camera traffic enforcement on August 18, 2015, are discussed in a separate post to follow.
© 2015 Howard Wright