The battle lines are being drawn across the nation for the great American red light camera war, but nowhere is it more apparent than in and around St. Louis, Missouri. Are tickets sent to the owners of vehicles photographed running red-lights legal or not? The mayors, city administrators, police chiefs, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys in the St. Louis area do not seem to have a consensus.
In May, St. Louis City Circuit Court Judge Mark Neill weighed in saying St. Louis, with its unique standing as both a city and a county, lacks the authority to authorize red light cameras without state legislation. Although he ruled that the ordinance authorizing the red light cameras was void, the decision has had no impact. St. Louis still mails off the tickets, but no one has been arrested for failure to pay. Those going to court do not have any points placed against their license.
The bigger battle over the cameras is their constitutionality regarding due process, the right to face one’s accuser, the prosecution’s burden of proof, and the right against self-incrimination. The cameras used in the St. Louis area have a flaw; photographs only depict the red light and the vehicle’s license number. There is no photograph of the driver. The tickets are being sent to the vehicle’s owner. According to the Constitution, the burden of proving who was driving (and therefore should get the ticket) falls on the prosecution. The owner has no obligation to admit guilt or prove someone else was driving. He also has a right to face the accuser, but in this case it is a photograph that cannot be cross-examined.
More than a hundred municipalities surround St. Louis in the bi-state area. About half of them use red light cameras and more are clamoring to get them. The only thing they are all sure of is the cameras are to improve public safety—they are not for revenue. After all, how much revenue could come to these cash-strapped cities through red light cameras?
In the City of St. Louis, they bring in about $3,000,000 a year. Even in small municipalities, the income from the cameras can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It is interesting to note that three of the municipalities not using the cameras have dissolved their police departments within the last year, contracting police services through the St. Louis County Police Department. Others are considering that move, too.
The Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) set guidelines for the use of the cameras on roadways they control. They require new cameras be preceded by a 30-day traffic studies and a public awareness campaign. Prior to their installation, signs have to be posted in the intersections. Local agencies using the cameras must provide ongoing safety and citation data.
In an early check of that safety data, MODOT found that intersections with traffic light cameras show a 45% drop in right-angle crashes causing death or serious injuries, but a 14 percent increase in the overall number of crashes.
Meanwhile, the local defense attorneys are telling their clients to ignore the red light camera tickets. Let the battle begin.
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