12/1/2009Missouri Supreme Court to Tackle Red Light Camera Issue
Missouri Supreme Court agrees to hear case on the legality of red light camera hearings.
Do administrative hearings offered for contested red light camera violations violate Missouri law? The state's highest court has agreed to take up the question next month. A former state trooper, Adolph Belt, attempted to challenge a $100 citation that a private vendor mailed to him on behalf of the city of Springfield in April 2008. A municipal judge declared Belt guilty, but when Belt attempted to appeal his case to a circuit court, his motion was denied. Springfield officials insist that there is no possibility of appeal from the city's finding of guilt.
"In short, the city maintains the case at bar is an administrative procedure over which this court lacks jurisdiction," Belt's attorney, Jason T. Umbarger wrote in his brief to the supreme court.
A circuit court agreed with Springfield and refused Belt's motion to have his case heard. Umbarger says that refusal violated Missouri Code Section 479.200, which provides for a defendant's right to a new trial in a circuit court, so long as he did not plead guilty. Moreover, state law establishes a very specific procedure for prosecuting alleged violations of municipal ordinances by filing an "information," or formal charges, before proceeding.
"All prosecutions for the violation of municipal ordinances shall be instituted by information and may be based upon a complaint," Missouri Code Section 479.090 states.
Umbarger cited precedents in which cases have been dismissed when prosecutors failed to file this document. The supreme court's rules require that the information be signed by the prosecutor, state the name of the individual who allegedly violated the ordinance and provide essential facts regarding the case. Umbarger argued that producing a notice with the registered owner of a vehicle, not necessarily the person who violated the ordinance, and neglecting several other requirements deprives motorists of their due process rights.
"The city has abandoned the requirements in Missouri that municipal ordinance violations are to be prosecuted beginning with formal charges," Umbarger explained in an email to TheNewspaper. "Defendants are never given a chance to have any trial, certainly not a fair trial. A city can't just make up its own rules about how it prosecutes criminal cases when the state has rules in place directing how the people and the accused are to be protected."
Although Missouri law does not authorize the use of red light cameras, more than two dozen municipalities have installed the systems. Oral argument in the case is scheduled to begin on January 27 at 9:30am.