By on January 31, 2010

Supreme 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’s use of the administrative process 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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3 Comments on “Missouri Supreme Court Questions Legality of Red Light Cameras...”

  • avatar

    Is this really the SoMO? Wow, they look inbred…

    Regardless, their line of thinking appears correct …

  • avatar

    “How can he wear an administrative hat when the constitution forbids him from acting in both departments?”

    The shot heard ’round the municipal world. The MO Supreme Court seems shocked – shocked! – to find that getting a traffic ticket means you’re guilty, that the judges act in league with the police and as agents for the municipalities. I would guess none have ever been involved with a contested traffic citation, because it works more or less the same all over the country.

  • avatar

    yeah they do look like they are of “questionable genetic material”.
    But being from St. Louis I am glad that the issue of automated ticketing is going to be tackled in my state before all the Podunk mom and pop towns decide to throw speed cameras all over the roads. (Its pretty easy to speed in such a flat state) Stl already has an issue with stoplight cameras, it’s a total money grab the tickets don’t even count against your license.

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