2/18/2020Missouri Court Upholds $100k Verdict For Red Light Camera Victim
Missouri Court of Appeals upholds a jury verdict awarding $100,000 to a woman falsely arrested over a red light camera ticket.
Bonnie A. Roeder will be keeping the $100,000 judgment awarded to her after the city of St. Peters, Missouri arrested her over a red light camera ticket. A unanimous three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals last week rejected as baseless the city's attempted defense of its conduct.
"Here the court is saying there is no legal debate about whether this was a legitimate exercise of the police power," Roeder's attorney, Hugh Eastwood, told TheNewspaper. "It was just an unlawful cash grab."
Roeder's journey began when a Redflex red light camera photographed her car allegedly entering a St. Peters intersection shortly after the light turned red on June 7, 2012. Within days, the Australian photo ticketing vendor mailed Roeder a $110 ticket, which she ignored as unlawful. Three years later, the Missouri Supreme Court said she was exactly right in the case St. Peters v. Roeder (view opinion, 180k PDF).
Before the high court ruling, on September 11, 2012, St. Peters municipal court administrator Greg M. White issued a warrant for Roeder's arrest. She drove past a Creve Coeur police officer with a license plate reader and was arrested and held in custody for three hours. The problem with issuing a warrant, however, was that the city had no ordinance that would make failure to appear for a photo ticket an arrestable offense. St. Charles County Circuit Court Judge Ted House threw out the "failure to appear" charge, and the Missouri Supreme Court threw out the red light camera charge. So Roeder decided in 2015 to sue the city for false arrest and malicious prosecution. A St. Charles jury awarded her $100,000 in damages. St. Peters insisted that the judgment be overturned on the grounds of sovereign immunity, but the Court of Appeals disagreed in an unsigned memorandum opinion.
"There can be no sovereign immunity for prosecuting a person under a non-existent law because such a prosecution is not a legitimate exercise of the police power," the three-judge panel concluded. "Roeder established that the City did not have a failure to appear ordinance, thus making the failure to appear charge baseless and improper."
The court also found fault with the city's practice of not bothering to verify the identity of the driver before issuing a red light camera ticket.
"One could have reasonably concluded there was no probable cause for the red light camera citation because, as Officer Peters admitted, he instigated the charge against Roeder before anyone investigated who was driving the car," the court explained. "No one from the city even compared the two photographs until the warrant application stage, months later on the separate, failure to appear charge. Officer Peters admitted it was reasonable to identify the driver only before obtaining a warrant. Therefore, based on these facts we cannot say that the city instigated the prosecution of the red light camera violation on reasonable grounds."
It is unclear whether the city intends to appeal the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. A copy of the unpublished opinion is available in a 300k PDF file at the source link below.