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Missouri Supreme Court Questions Legality of Red Light Cameras

January 28, 2010

Missouri Supreme Court Questions Legality of Red Light Cameras
Missouri Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a case deciding the fate of automated enforcement in the state. 

Jason UmbargerSupreme court justices in Missouri yesterday openly questioned the constitutionality of the red light camera program in the city of Springfield. The high court heard oral arguments in the case of retired highway patrol officer Adolph Belt, Jr. who attempted to defend himself in a court of law against the automated citation he received in the mail from Lasercraft, a UK-based camera vendor. Springfield insisted that Belt had no such right and that an administrative hearing presided over by a municipal judge constituted the first and last appeal in the matter. This procedure raised eyebrows among members of the high court, as administration represent a function of the executive.

“Do we also have a separation of powers issue — that a municipal judge is also being an executive official for the city?” Judge Laura Denvir Stith asked. “Section 1, Article 2 of the Missouri Constitution which says… ‘The powers of government shall be divided into three distinct departments — the legislative, executive and judicial — …and no person… charged with the exercise of powers belonging to one shall exercise any power belonging to the others.’ Assuming for the purposes of this question that the city could set up an administrative procedure, can it have a judicial officer play an executive role?”

Belt and his attorney, Jason Umbarger, had filed for a new trial in circuit court, arguing that traffic cases were considered to be quasi-criminal matters. The circuit court refused to hear the case, claiming it had no jurisdiction. Members of the high court were not convinced the procedure was correct.

“The municipal judge is the initial fact finder,” one justice explained. “Why wouldn’t, then, there be a trial de novo because he’s acting as a judge not as an administrator? …How can he wear an administrative hat when the constitution forbids him from acting in both departments?”

Springfield Chief Prosecutor Johnnie Burgess argued that the city used administrative was a shrewd financial move. The city also saved money by adding the duty of hearing such cases to the job description of the municipal judge rather than hiring a separate administrative hearing officer. Most importantly, the system blocks 9300 ticket recipients from mounting costly challenges.

“Our fear — the city’s fear — is that if this court decides that all litigation that touches or concerns an administrative ordinance must be handled by the municipal court, then a number of those other things that are done not just by Springfield, but by other cities, will get caught up in the requirement to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, a jury trial and so forth,” Burgess explained.

“How is that due process?” a high court judge asked. “You can’t convict someone if they didn’t do the crime. It’s fundamental that the driver be the one convicted, not the owner of the car, if they’re going through a red light. I mean, the owner of the car doesn’t go through the red light — unless he’s the driver.”

Courts are mixed on the question of red light camera legality. In 2007, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the use of automating ticketing machines violated state law and deprived motorists of due process (view ruling). The Ohio Supreme Court (read opinion) and Iowa Supreme Court (read opinion) declared camera use consistent with state laws. Belt’s lawyer hopes that the Missouri court follows Minnesota’s lead.

“We are pleased the Missouri Supreme Court chose to hear our case and await the court’s guidance,” Umbarger wrote in an email to TheNewspaper. “We continue to maintain defendants in these cases are entitled to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a presumption of innocence and all the other protections we afford any other criminal defendant.”

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