Missouri Supreme Court’s First Run in With Red Light Tickets

In early March 2010, the Missouri Supreme Court addressed the issue of red light tickets for the first time.  Red light runners shouldn’t hope though that the computerized ticket system recently installed in so many municipalities is going away in the Show Me State any time soon. 

Springfield’s Ordinance

At issue in this case was Springfield, Missouri’s administrative system of adjudicating the tickets.  In Springfield, anyone wanting to contest their ticket appeared before an administrative “hearing examiner” and had no way of appealing because there was no clear hierarchy set out for the administrative style hearing.

The Court held that the red light tickets, issued when there is a violation of a city ordinance, must be adjudicated by a judge – either through associate circuit court, a municipal court, or a county municipal court, as required by Missouri Revised Statute Section 479.010.  Ticket hearings held in municipal court or circuit court would allow more protections, including a clear standard of proof and clear process for appeal.

Writing “[t]his is a $100 case. But sometimes, it’s not the money – it’s the principle,” the court agreed with veteran highway patrolman, Adolph Belt, that the system was unfair. Belt contested his red light ticket, but found no clear or easy way to appeal when he was found guilty. Read the Full Opinion.

Belt also argued that the yellow lights at monitored intersections were too short. Belt timed the camera where he was ticketed and found that the yellow light lasted only 3.5 – 3.8 seconds. There have been allegations in the past that other cities have shortened yellow lights in order to increase the number of tickets. Read more.  Belt also argued that the cameras and red lights were not synchronized properly.  

However, The Court rested its opinion on the administrative system for adjudication and did not directly address the camera timing issues.  This holding will only apply to Springfield’s’ system of adjudication and the city has recently stopped all ticketing through the cameras (from the Columbia Missourian).

The Rest of Missouri

                Although the holding in this case was narrow, the dicta of the Court’s opinion that indicates other administrative schemes may be subject to attack.  Section 479.011 allows cities with populations over 400,000 to create administrative hearings to oversee violation of parking tickets and “other civil, nonmoving municipal code violations.”  However, the court noted that running a red light has traditionally been considered a moving violation.  Currently the City of St. Louis and Kansas City are the only cities in Missouri with populations over 400,000.  Both could create an administrative procedure for handling red light tickets, but both cities currently push tickets through their respective municipal courts.  For the present, those systems appear to be safe.

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