7/30/2009Federal Judge Tosses Missouri Red Light Camera Challenge
US magistrate court judge rules that federal due process protections do not apply to red light camera citations.
The US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri last week threw out a challenge to a red light camera program based on federal anti-racketeering statutes. The city of Arnold was first in the state to set up automated ticketing machines in 2005, a move that the attorney general at the time suggested was illegal. A group of motorists filed suit against the city and American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the private company responsible for issuing the $94.50 tickets.
The ticket recipients charged that the way ATS and Arnold colluded to extract cash from vehicle owners was similar to an organized criminal enterprise. This is a violation that would, they argued, fall under the RICO Act which was codified in 1970 as a tool to fight the mafia. Judge Thomas C. Mummert, III rejected this argument in part because the law states that victims must cite specific injuries to "business or property." As the motorists' cases are still pending in state court, none has paid a fine.
"To the extent plaintiff allege they have suffered embarrassment, humiliation, and inconvenience, plaintiffs lack standing to pursue their RICO claims, as such injuries are more akin to personal injuries than to injuries to 'business or property,'" Mummert wrote in his 48-page decision. "Plaintiffs have satisfied their burden to show perceptible harm for purposes of standing to pursue their civil RICO claims, but only to the extent they may have expended money for attorneys' fees and costs related to the defense of the notices of violation, and not to the extent they allege they have suffered embarrassment, humiliation, and inconvenience."
The drivers went on to argue that their rights to due process under federal law were violated by the Arnold ordinance that declared the owner of a vehicle guilty of an offense unless he can prove otherwise.
"In essence, the parties' positions on whether or not plaintiffs' federal due process rights were violated depend upon whether the ordinance violation proceeding is characterized as civil or criminal in nature," Mummert explained. "Plaintiffs' due process claims rely on their position that the ordinance is criminal in nature, and defendants counter that the ordinance is civil in nature."
Mummert found that the city could change a criminal violation into a civil one merely by declaring it "civil" and ensuring the only penalty imposed is monetary in nature. Evidence that the program never actually accomplished the goal of reducing accidents and was really designed to generate revenue is immaterial to this question.
"The only penalty available for a Red Light Camera Ordinance violation is the imposition of a fine, which requires the payment of money," Mummert wrote. "Such a monetary penalty is not deemed a punishment. Therefore, this factor supports a determination that the ordinance and its sanction are civil in nature.... Any evidence of the effect the red light cameras may have had on the amount of accidents at traffic signal intersections or the amount of revenue in the city's coffers does not indicate the non-punitive, public safety purpose of the ordinance was pretextual or a sham at the time the ordinance was enacted."
Once the red light camera is declared a civil matter, constitutional protections no longer apply. Mummert concluded by dismissing the idea that ATS and Arnold engaged in mail fraud by knowingly sending notices of violation that contained false legal threats. The judge dismissed in full the federal allegations made against ATS and Arnold while declining to address questions of illegal conduct made under state law.
A copy of the decision is available in a 160k PDF file at the source link below.