Supreme Court Dooms Red Light And Speeding Enforcement Using Cameras

On the same day that the Missouri Supreme Court handed down its decision in the City of Moline Acres case, two other cases (Tupper v. City of St. Louis and City of St. Peters v. Roeder) were decided by the Missouri Supreme Court making it almost impossible to use automated traffic cameras for the enforcement of running red lights and speeding ordinances.

Mo Supreme Court

Missouri Supreme Court

Rebuttable Presumption Invalid – We start with the first step in a municipal court proceeding, which is the filing of a charge (information) in Municipal Court. In order for a prosecutor to file a charge in municipal court, the prosecutor must have probable cause to believe there was a violation of the ordinance and that the accused committed it. Remember the filing of charges is based on a photograph of the license plate number and the vehicle, which is used to identify the owner of the vehicle based on registration of the vehicle with the state. To overcome the difficulties with identification of the driver both the St. Louis and the St. Peters ordinances established a rebuttable presumption that the owner of the motor vehicle was the driver at the time the violation took place. By relying on the rebuttable presumption a prosecutor could file charges against the owner because the prosecutor had probable cause to believe there was a violation of the ordinance and that the accused violated the ordinance.

Municipal ordinance violations can be either civil or criminal based upon the nature of the offense. Since there was some authority that a rebuttable presumption  was civil, the penalty was only a $100 fine and the revocation of a driver’s license has always  been considered civil in nature many municipal attorneys concluded that the matter was not criminal.

Whether or not to classify a charge for speeding or running a red light as criminal or civil was an issue of first impression for the Missouri Supreme Court that was critical to the decision.

In criminal matters, the burden of proof is always on the government. The Court reasoned that the charges for speeding or running a red light were moving violations, requiring the assessment of points against the driver’s license, which could lead to the loss of the driver’s license. This was considered  by the Court to be a significant penalty warranting the classification of the charge as criminal; therefore, the rebuttable presumption in the St. Louis and the St. Peter ordinances was invalid and unconstitutional because it shifted the burden of proof to the accused, which is not allowed in a criminal case.

Since the St. Louis ordinance only took a picture of the rear license plate we can say goodbye to the St. Louis ordinance although media reports, after the Courts decision,  indicate that St. Louis  may revise its ordinance in accordance with the opinion of the court. The Court invalidated the rebuttable presumption in the St. Peters ordinance but other parts of the ordinance were valid thereby allowing the prosecution of drivers based upon actual identification of the driver shown in the camera picture. Even with a picture of the driver, prosecution is  difficult under the St. Peters ordinance because identification using state records to match the plate numbers on the vehicle with the picture of the owner of the vehicle is  challenging since the owner may not be driving the vehicle or the picture  may not be clear enough to identify the driver as the owner. News reports indicate that  St. Peters will continue to enforce  its ordinance.

Moving Violation – Under state law, moving violations for speeding or running a red light are required to be reported to the Department of Revenue so that points can be assessed against the driver as required by state law. The St. Louis ordinance provided that no points would be assessed, which conflicted with state law that required reporting of moving violations and assessment of points against the driver making the ordinance invalid because it conflicted with state law.

The St. Peters ordinance was silent as to whether or not points would be assessed, although the notice given by St. Peters stated that no points would be   assessed thereby giving the Court a basis for finding against St Peters with respect to the individual defendant in the St. Peters  case. The  end result was that the Court  severed  invalid provisions from the valid, which  allowed  St. Peters to   continue to file charges based on  the  identity of the driver.

No Legal Fictions – The Court in reviewing the long history of cases dealing with automated camera traffic enforcement rejected all efforts by local government to make a nonmoving  violation for speeding and running red lights. Municipal attorneys tried to make speeding and running red light violations into nonmoving violations by creating legal fictions, which were rejected by the Court. One ordinance was cleverly written to avoid being a moving violation, based upon a theory of suspended animation by making it a violation “to be” in the intersection after the traffic light turned red. It was as though Newton’s First Law of Motion (” Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.”) was suspended while the vehicle was in the intersection. This theory seemed to have initially won the day with the Court of Appeals.  However later opinions overruled this case making it clear that  local government could not create a  legal fiction by calling it a nonmoving offense (being in the intersection while the light was red).  The Court concluded that it was obvious that the vehicle was moving as it entered on red The abortive effort of the City of Moline Acres, discussed in an earlier Post, which made it a violation for the owner of the vehicle to give permission to drive the vehicle in excess of the speed limit was also soundly rejected as totally irrational.

The bottom line is that speeding or running a  red light is a moving violation by whatever name you give it  and points must be assessed under state law.

Observations 

  • Credibility – These battles have come with an enormous loss of credibility by local government even though there are good policy reasons to enforce speed limits and the running of red lights laws, which I have personally advocated. For many small communities the fines generated by traffic violations helped pay the cost of operating a Police Department. It  is also good use of manpower  and probably the only way to effectively enforce running of red light laws. The good policy reasons were trumped by the use of fines as a way to generate  enormous amounts of revenues for local government. In addition, the charges for speeding and running a red light fell heavily on minorities making it a lightning rod in the current political environment, where the courts and politicians are scrutinizing municipal officials and municipal courts.
  • Beware of Strangers Bearing Gifts – Aggressive retailing of the use of automated traffic cameras by American Traffic Solutions (ATS) facilitated the use of automated traffic enforcement since ATS was willing to take complete charge of the system without the city having to do a whole lot more than just sign a contract and collect its share of the revenue. Testimony in a civil case against ATS showed that it was informed by its attorney that the charges for speeding or running a red light were moving violations,  leaving open the question as to whether or not  ATS  informed its clients that there was no way to avoid a moving violation.
  • Legislative and Judicial Action  – The Missouri General Assembly responded in 2015 by adopting legislation that limited the amount of revenue that could be generated from its municipal court, prohibited fines in excess of $300 and bans jail time for minor traffic offenses. The Missouri Supreme Court is also considering  action with respect to the operation of municipal courts.

    MO state capitol

    State Capitol

 

Communities are now faced with some very difficult questions. Do they give up  enforcement of  ordinances that prohibit  the running of red lights and speeding or do they modify their current ordinances?   Do they need to take steps to improve the image of  coal government and in particular the police department?   Obviously all of this has to be viewed in a larger context of the  interaction of  police departments with citizens.  This is no small task considering  recent events.

© 2015 Howard Wright

 

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