(AP) — Attorneys for several St. Louis-area cities sought to defend the use of traffic cameras to spot speeding and stoplight violations Tuesday as the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the local ordinances should be struck down.
The three traffic-camera cases all have slightly different twists, but could help settle the legal uncertainty over whether cities can issue tickets to vehicle owners on the presumption that they were the drivers and, if so, whether the same penalties should apply as if they were pulled over by a police officer.
At issue are challenges to traffic-camera ordinances used for stoplights in St. Louis and the suburb of St. Peters and for speed-limit enforcement in the suburb of Moline Acres. Lower courts invalidated the ordinances, in part because they ruled that the measures conflicted with state laws. The cities appealed.
The Supreme Court’s eventual decision also could affect how traffic cameras are used in dozens of other communities around Missouri. The court does not say when it will rule on the cases.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, who attended Tuesday’s hearings, said the city has placed cameras at about 50 intersections in order to free officers to focus on other crimes.
“It has a real payoff – it keeps the community safe, and it keeps more police officers in our neighborhoods,” Dotson said after the hearings.
In St. Louis, tickets are issued to the owner of a vehicle shown running a red light, and that person then can assert that someone else actually was driving the vehicle.
That’s contrary to typical criminal proceedings, in which prosecutors bear the burden of proof, argued attorney Bevis Schock, who represented vehicle owners in all three cases.
“These protections of the Constitution … are completely rejected in this scheme from the city of St. Louis,” Schock told the judges. “They hand you an affidavit and say, `Prove you didn’t do it.’ That’s crazy.”
St. Peters uses cameras to capture images of both the vehicle license plate and the driver. Its red-light tickets are issued to the operator, not necessarily the owner, of the vehicle, said attorney Scott Williams, who represents the city. As is the case in most Missouri cities, St. Peters does not supply the state with information to assess points against a person’s driver’s license for red-light camera violations.