As a municipal judge, I presided over many red-light camera cases and decided outcomes in accord with the applicable city ordinance in place—i.e. driver identity, proper stop, color of signal light, etc.
I can tell you that no one likes making a traffic court appearance. This includes policemen, defendants and attorneys. However, without exception, there was one type of ticket that suffered the most disdain and was the least popular—the red-light camera ticket. No speeding, stop-sign, or seat-belt ticket could possibly compare with the heated passions evoked by the "big brother" (typical defendant's words) camera ticket.
Ask most experienced municipal traffic court judges and they, if candid, can likely paint a quick picture of the average speeding-ticket defendant that actually comes to court—at a minimum they skew young and are typically hoping to eventually get the money together for an attorney's fee or fine.
But, such stereotyping just doesn't work for the red-light camera ticket defendant that actually comes to court. These defendants are often professional men & women; fathers & mothers; grandmothers & grandfathers; and business owners (lots of these).
Keep in mind that red-light camera tickets arrive, unsuspectingly, in the mail with the look and feel of something akin to a utility bill, as opposed to a ticket that an officer hands the defendant through the driver-side window.
These affluent, civic-minded, defendants typically have the money for the fine, but often take issue with the ticket-issuing methodology, camera technology, perceived purpose of the camera system, road conditions at the time of the red-light camera's picture, or insist that they were not driving the car. So, they head to court to voice their concerns.
It is often quite troubling when mothers and fathers point out that they are not the driver in the red-light camera picture, only to find out they must choose between facing another trip to court for a trial or agreeing to swear and affirm that the person in the red-light camera picture was their son or daughter.
St. Peters put up the first red-light cameras in St. Charles County and the city has undoubtedly collected much money from alleged violators. But, do most St. Peters citizens appreciate the automated law enforcement? I doubt anyone knows. Once in place, does desensitization simply set in? It would seem so; especially given that a former St. Peters mayor went to prison for matters related to alleged red-light camera company bribes.
Do the people of St. Peters feel safer at certain intersections more than others? Does any non-political St. Peters citizen actually know why one intersection qualifies for cameras while another does not?
In light of a recent ruling in St. Louis Circuit Court, it could be that St. Peters' red-light camera program eventually goes dark. If so, will there be an uproar from safety advocates throughout St. Peters banding together to bring back the red-light cameras via a push for a state-wide referendum to mandate camera enforcement at all intersections?
Can anyone envision this? I am very much intellectually curious as to why it would seem extremely unnatural for such a response. In my experience, those for traffic camera enforcement have a sort of take-it or leave-it mentality; while, those against camera enforcement are much more vocal and miffed acting.
In 2009, three motorists filed an action challenging the constitutionality of St. Louis City's red-light camera ordinances. A Circuit Court Judge has preliminarily agreed with the motorists and said that "St. Louis did not have authority to enact such an ordinance. Therefore, [its] Ordinance . . . is void."
The Circuit Judge went on to say that the automated red-light camera system "is a drastic departure from the traditional police powers granted to municipalities; and as seen here, it raises a whole host of legal and constitutional issues." He added, "A municipality may only exercise its police powers under authority granted to it by the state." The judge, at this stage, does not think the Missouri Legislature has granted this authority.
Make no mistake, all cities with camera traffic enforcement (and the private companies conducting their law enforcement for them) will be watching this Circuit Court case closely.
But, more importantly, will St. Peters residents be watching closely or care at all? Who do you think will watch more closely? True, concerned, safety advocates? Traffic-camera companies? Those in charge of dwindling city coffers during the recession? Citizens concerned with privacy and/or constitutional rights?
A true objective look at this is in order.