ST. LOUIS • While allowing that Missouri communities may have seized upon red-light camera laws as “the elusive goose that lays the golden egg,” a state appeals court on Tuesday upheld enforcement of the one in St. Louis.
A three-judge panel of the Eastern District Missouri Court of Appeals reversed St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Mark Neill’s ruling last year that the city lacks authority to enact such an ordinance.
The appeals court concluded that reasonable traffic regulations are “a proper exercise” of a city’s police power, and that St. Louis is a constitutional charter city “possessing broad authority” to enact laws.
Neill had struck down the St. Louis ordinance in February 2012, adding that it was unconstitutional because it did not provide a way for the accused to contest a violation, except to assert that someone else was driving.
Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said the city was not surprised by Tuesday’s ruling. “The city believed all along that red-light cameras are legal,” she said. “The bottom line is it comes down to public safety.”
While the opinion focused on deficiencies with the violation notices issued to offenders, Crane said the city fixed the wording more than a year ago.
Russell Watters, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said there will be a motion for a rehearing and transfer within the next 15 days, with an intent to put the issue before the Missouri Supreme Court.
Watters said his clients maintain the city lacked authority to enact the ordinance. While the city has changed its summonses, he added, it long used an illegal version.
“They continued to collect these fines illegally for the last two or three years — actually since its inception,” he said.
St. Louis enacted the ordinance in November 2005 and it launched the photo enforcement program in May 2007 under a contract with American Traffic Solutions. Violators receive $100 citations in the mail.
Last year, St. Louis red-light tickets brought in about $5.4 million, the mayor’s office said, with about $3.7 million going to the city’s general revenue fund and $1.7 million to American Traffic Solutions.
There are 31 city intersections monitored by 65 cameras, officials said. The cameras photograph offending vehicles and license plates but not drivers.
One of the plaintiffs was a woman who received a ticket issued to a car registered to her and her mother but also used by her father and her boyfriend; none could recall who was driving at the time.
The woman paid the fine after receiving a “final notice” warning that it was in her “best interest to pay this immediately,” the court opinion stated. The woman was part of a class action representing vehicle owners who paid tickets.
The appeals court held that the initial and final notices did not adequately describe the recipients’ options. But the court added that plaintiff was not entitled to a refund of a fine she voluntarily paid.
A second class of plaintiffs covered people whose cases were still pending in municipal court.
Appeals court Judge Kurt Odenwald, writing for the panel, acknowledged that the red-light cameras have been controversial and even derided as merely a way to generate revenue.
“Indeed, a common-sense understanding of the implementation of the automated system strongly suggests cities employing automated red-light cameras within their municipal boundaries may have discovered the elusive goose that lays the golden egg,” he wrote.
But he questioned whether red-light cameras are fundamentally different from the introduction of radar guns to clock speed.
“As disconcerting as it may seem, the financial windfall enjoyed by municipalities implementing the automated camera system does not diminish the benefits to public safety occasioned by any potential reduction in traffic accidents within their municipal boundaries,” Odenwald wrote.
What’s more, Crane added, the city of St. Louis has seen an 80 percent drop in red-light camera citations at some of the earliest intersections where they were installed.
In March, the appeals court heard several cases involving the use of red-light cameras throughout the state. None of the others was included in Tuesday’s ruling.
The appeals court had previously ruled in favor of cities that used cameras, so long as the offenses were treated like parking violations.