8/19/2015Missouri Supreme Court Delivers Three Strikes Against Photo Tickets
Defense attorneys challenging red light cameras win three cases before the Missouri Supreme Court.
The highest court in Missouri on Monday struck down red light camera and speed camera programs. In three separate cases, the high court judges found that the cameras unconstitutionally shifted the burden of proof by forcing ticket recipients to prove their own innocence. The judges also found that the creation of "civil" citations and administrative hearings for moving traffic violations violated state law.
The decisions were a major blow to American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the Arizona-based vendor that sought to obtain a "first mover" advantage against its competition by opening for business in the Show Me State without the General Assembly's authorization. The company's own lawyers warned that the move was likely to be found illegal (view legal memo). Earlier this year, the firm settled a class action lawsuit over the lack of authority for the programs, but Monday's state Supreme Court rulings raised deeper legal issues.
In the St. Louis case, motorists Sarah K. Tupper and Sandra L. Thurmond successfully argued in circuit court that the red light camera ordinance that they were accused of violating was illegal (view circuit court ruling). The high court agreed that St. Louis could not treat moving violations as a parking ticket-like civil case with a lowered standard of proof.
"For many, a $100 fine is not considered small," the court ruled in Tupper v. St. Louis (view ruling, 120k PDF). "Further, a violation of ordinance 66868 will affect the owner's driver's license because running a red light is a moving violation that requires the assessment of two points. These factors, as well as the quasi-criminal nature of municipal ordinance proceedings, lead this court to apply the law regarding presumptions in criminal cases."
The high court majority went on to strike down the presumption that the owner of the vehicle must also be the driver. This is the fundamental premise of nearly every photo ticketing program in the country, outside of Arizona and California.
"Ordinance 66868 requires that a summons and violation notice be sent to the owner of the motor vehicle without any attempt to determine if the owner was the driver," the court ruled. "The presumption relieves the prosecution from proving an element of the violation charged beyond a reasonable doubt and is impermissible... Therefore, this court finds ordinance 66868 is unconstitutional because it creates a mandatory rebuttable presumption that shifts the burden of persuasion onto the defendant."
In the next case, motorist Bonnie A. Roeder argued that the $110 ticket she received was invalid because Missouri law requires the assessment of points for moving violations. The high court decided that the city of St. Peters could not evade this requirement by creating a fiction that red light camera tickets were not traffic tickets, but the equivalent of a parking ticket for being in an intersection on red.
"Failing to obey a traffic control device, or running a red light, is a moving violation as defined by section 302.010 because the motor vehicle involved in the violation is in motion at the time the violation occurs," the high court ruled in St. Peters v. Roeder (view ruling, 180k PDF). "Accordingly, [state law] requires that a person found to violate ordinance 4356 by running a red light have two points assessed against his or her driving record. On the other hand, ordinance 4536 states that no points will be assessed. Ordinance 4536 conflicts with state law by prohibiting what state law permits -- the assessment of two points for violating ordinance 4536."
Instead of declaring the entire ordinance invalid, the high court decided to strike only the provision stating that no points would be assessed to recipients of photo tickets. Several of the high court judges dissented, arguing the court majority was wrong to suggest in a footnote that cities could issue automated tickets as long as the driver was photographed, positively identified and points applied to his license.
"I suspect that the 'no points' provision was essential to the realpolitik of this ordinance, i.e., to striking a balance between the desire to raise revenues and the risk of outraging its citizens," Judge Paul C. Wilson wrote in a dissent.
In the final case, KMOX Radio personality Charlie Brennan challenged a $124 speed camera ticket that B and W Sensors mailed to him in Moline Acres three years ago. The court found the fatal flaw in this program was that the city presumes anyone driving a vehicle photographed by the program was driving with the owner's explicit permission to exceed the speed limit.
"Even if the court assumes that there is some rational connection between ownership of a vehicle and permission to use that vehicle generally, this connection does not stretch far enough to allow the finder of fact to infer from ownership the very specific permission to exceed the speed limit that the ordinance requires," the high court ruled in Moline Acres v. Brennan (view ruling, 140k PDF). "The city can still charge violations of the ordinance if it can state facts in the notice showing probable cause that the owner gave the driver specific permission to use the owner's vehicle for speeding and if it can prove this element beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, without relying on the unconstitutional presumption."
It is not clear how a city or its camera vendor could ever reach such a standard of proof. The court went on to strike down the program in Moline Acres because it created a system of imposing and collecting fines completely outside of the judicial system.
"The ordinance creates a system by which vehicle owners are accused of violating the ordinance, not in court where their rights are well established and can be protected, but in a letter from the police," the high court ruled. "The owners are told to make payments, not as fines owed upon conviction, but as ransom that will prevent charges from being filed in the first place... the unauthorized system created by the ordinance and implemented by the notice is a shortcut around the judicial system and its protection for the rights of the accused."
The court went on to note that by cutting out the judiciary, the photo ticketing programs evaded the Macks Creek law put in place to prevent small towns from earning more than 30 percent of their revenue from traffic tickets.