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St. Louis red-light camera law unconstitutional, judge says

A St. Louis judge said the city’s red-light camera ordinance infringes on individuals’ procedural due process rights because the notice of violation does not provide a court date and may lead people to believe they cannot contest the ticket.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Mark Neill issued his final order in Smith v. City of St. Louis last Friday. In May he said the city lacked the authority to enact the red-light camera ordinance because the Missouri Legislature never passed any “enabling legislation” conferring the authority to the city. The judge reaffirmed the finding in Friday’s order.

“We believe Missouri law is clear that Missouri cities, including St. Louis, have the right to enact red light safety ordinances such as this one, and we look forward to bringing this case to the appellate courts,” City Counselor Patricia Hageman said in a statement. “We note also that a similar ordinance was upheld recently by the Missouri Supreme Court” in Creve Coeur v. Nottebrok.

But Brown & James attorney Russell Watters, who represents the plaintiffs on a pro bono basis, pointed out that Neill distinguished this case from the Creve Coeur case. The lawyer said, “The city ordinance is not written anywhere close to the Creve Coeur ordinance.”

The Creve Coeur ordinance “likens itself to a parking violation, and states that the mere presence of the vehicle in the intersection while a light is red subjects the owner’s vehicle to a fine,” Neill wrote. “The City’s Ordinance, on the other hand, is merely an enforcement mechanism for the City’s ‘steady red indication’ ordinance, which can only be violated by a ‘driver.’”

The Creve Coeur ordinance specifically states that “under no circumstances may a person be imprisoned for such an infraction,” while the city ordinance does not contain any such language, Neill said.

That means, Watters said, that a person violating the city ordinance could be subject to 90 days in jail or a $500 fine.

Even if the city ordinance is properly classified as civil, the judge said, it is still procedurally deficient because the notice of violation doesn’t provide a summons or court date, nor does it inform people that they have a right to contest the ticket unless they assert someone else was driving the vehicle.

Watters said the issue of enabling legislation wasn’t raised in the Creve Coeur case and said he’s not sure the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District would have upheld the ordinance if the issue had been raised. The appellate court upheld the Creve Coeur ordinance in an Oct. 25 opinion. On Jan. 31, the Missouri Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs’ transfer motion.

Neill also said those who voluntarily paid their $100 fines are not entitled to refunds. Watters said he may appeal that part of the decision.

“We think if the ordinance is void, the city should never have collected this money to begin with, and the citizens should have a right to a refund of their money,” he said.

The judge denied the plaintiffs for an injunction barring the city from ticketing via red-light cameras, stating that “the Court assumes that the City will not attempt to enforce the Ordinance if and when a judgment declaring the Ordinance void becomes final.”

But typically orders are stayed until an appellate court or the state Supreme Court issues a final decision.

And Hageman asserted in her statement that Neill’s decision “has no impact” on the city’s red-light camera enforcement.

The case is Smith et al. v. City of St. Louis, 0922-CC10285.

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City expected to appeal red-light camera ruling

See Judge Mark Neill’s order and final judgment (PDF)

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