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Missouri Supreme Court To Hear Challenge To St. Louis Red Light Cameras

A judge has thrown out the city of St. Louis' ordinance that allows the use of red light cameras.
via Flickr/functoruser
A judge has thrown out the city of St. Louis' ordinance that allows the use of red light cameras.

The Missouri Supreme Court has agreed to hear a legal challenge to a red light camera program.

The Court announced today it will hear a case on St. Louis's ordinance, which a circuit court judge threw out in February.  The judge, Steven Ohmer later ruled that the city could still enforce the measure during the appeals process, but had to keep all the fines it collected in escrow. 

The Supreme Court has declined to hear seven other challenges to red light camera laws, all of which raised questions that were similar to those in the St. Louis case. Attorney Hugh Eastwood, who represents the two women challenging St. Louis' law, said the fact that Ohmer initially halted enforcement of the law may have caught the attention of the high court.

"This was the first time a judge had, in my view admirably stuck his neck out and said there are constitutional and statutory deficiencies with the red light camera scheme, and therefore it cannot continue to operate," Eastwood said.

What the court will consider

The various challenges to red light cameras have all included constitutional claims. But in all cases, appeals judges have chosen instead to rule on narrower grounds -- that the municipal ordinances conflict with aspects of state law. St. Louis officials don't expect the court to do much more than clarify what a red light camera ordinance should look like.

"Around the country, red light safety programs are operating," said police chief Sam Dotson. "And I think what we just lacked here in our state was clarity about the rules associated with that. I think they they’re a force multiplier for police officers. And hopefully the court will just give us direction on how those programs should operate."

He pointed to statistics showing that 84 percent of people who get one red light camera ticket do not offend again, and that 96 percent of drivers who get a second ticket don't get a third.

City attorney Michael Garvin said in a statement that, "conflicting Missouri Court of Appeals rulings have led to confusion on the proper enforcement of red light cameras.  We are pleased the Supreme Court is willing to clarify the situation."

But Eastwood said the court has important constitutional issues to weigh.

"Cities have taken the position that they no longer have to prove an element of the offense, which is the identity of the driver," he said. "That is a constitutional law question, but it’s also a pretty serious one that goes to what burden do states and cities have when they prosecute someone."

In taking the case, the judges agreed with a city motion to bypass the Court of Appeals. They provided no reasoning for their decision.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.