Arnold Defiant after Red Light Camera Decision

27 Dec

The subject of red light cameras (RLC) came up at the December 19 meeting of the Arnold city council, in the wake of the recent appeals court decision that went against the city’s RLC program. You can watch the discussion here, starting at the 40:00 mark. City attorney Bob Sweeney led the discussion, and he was quick to suggest that the city make no hasty decisions to stop the cameras and, indeed, that nobody think the court decision has any real meaning at all. He said the attorneys from MIRMA, the city’s insurer, which seems have its fingers in everything Arnold related, agree with this move. What he wants to do is take his time, analyze the decision, and apparently change the city’s ordinance to comply with the ruling, if need be. Sweeney, though, expressed confidence that the state Supreme Court will take up the issue (although a request for transfer was denied in a case involving Florissant).

In the meantime, Sweeney stressed that the Appeals Court’s decision is “not final” for 15 days and is “on abeyance” “at this moment” because Arnold plans to ask for transfer to the Supreme Court (he actually said it was already filed, but Casenet shows no such filing). This status could end within weeks, though, if that motion, which must be filed within 15 days of the decision, is denied.

Will ATS Really Sue?

At the meeting, the specter of a lawsuit against the city by camera vendor American Traffic Solutions (ATS) was raised if the council defied Sweeney’s advice. The same threat has been raised for years – but why is everyone so sure that ATS will sue? Sweeney said the city still has contractual obligations to ATS (he ominously said “we have been reminded of that fact,” presumably by ATS).  Never mind that the city’s contract with ATS says it can be terminated “if by virtue of a change to existing Missouri law, the usage of stationary camera systems in aid of enforcing red light violations by the City is deemed illegal, or otherwise impermissible.” I’d say that the Appeals Court declaring Arnold’s ordinance “void and unenforceable” fits that description. But does ATS really want to get in the business of suing its customers? It seems like ATS only does this in cases where voters, not elected officials, force the removal of RLCs, as happened in Houston and College Station, Texas and Bellingham, Washington. In these cases, the city governments basically rolled over, hoping that ATS would win the lawsuits and thwart the will of voters. While I have no doubt Arnold would side with ATS in such a situation, the only attempt by Arnold residents to fight back was a petition asking for the cameras to be put up for a vote. The petition was denied by the city council. Still, the threat of a lawsuit seems to be a handy weapon to wield whenever anyone starts asking questions about Arnold’s RLC program.

Other Cities’ Reactions

There seems to be no fear of lawsuits from ATS in the Missouri cities of Hazelwood, Northwoods, Calverton Park, Kansas City, St. Joseph, or Excelsior Springs. All of these cities are ATS customers that have turned off their cameras or suspended enforcement of tickets in the wake of recent court decisions. I would also note that it does not appear than any of the aforementioned cities waited 15 days to act, as Sweeney urged Arnold to do – many acted within two days. (They also apparently don’t fear councilman Paul Freese’s suggestion that the city might be liable if the cameras are off and an accident occurs). A local legal expert seems to agree that suspending RLCs makes sense:

“In this case, it is sensible for local governments that have ordinances that are similar to the Ellisville ordinance to take a step back and consider whether they want to continue with these programs in the absence of a higher court ruling,” said Richard Reuben, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. He specializes in state and local government law.

In St. Joseph, according to the city manager:

The city’s contract with ATS does not require the city to fulfill a certain amount of revenue per month, like in Kansas City. So a hiatus from use will not keep the city liable for funds, even with zero tickets issued, Mr. Woody said.

St. Joseph gives ATS 100% of the revenue on the first two RLC tickets each day. The Kansas City requirement he refers to is that KC pays ATS $4,500 per camera per month, regardless of the number of tickets. But Kansas City is currently not paying that fee. In an email, Kansas City Star reporter Lynn Horsley told me:

The city has halted the payments and ATS has agreed to that until the legal questions are resolved. The city has the ability to cancel the contract in the event of an adverse legal ruling, so to avoid complete cancellation of the contract, ATS agreed to suspend the payments.

Now this situation sounds exactly like Arnold. Arnold has the advantage here, in that the city could now cancel the contract, so ATS should be happy to settle for a mere suspension of enforcement while the legal issues are sorted out. But since Sweeney and the city are in bed with ATS, Arnold prefers to keep the status quo intact and the cameras on, so both parties can continue to collect revenue. Their only concern now is to keep the cameras on and to make any ordinance changes necessary to (hopefully, in their mind) keep the program from being shut down. Recall Sweeney’s dealings with ATS in the 2010 local election.

Caveats

Yes, all camera ordinances are not the same. But later ones were modeled after earlier ones, and they all share the basics – they don’t put points on the licenses of offenders, they presume the owner of the car is driving (in both cases unless they photograph the driver’s face, which these cities don’t), and they presume guilt. The fact that all these cities have acted to suspend their RLC programs shows that their ordinances are similar enough to all be affected by recent court rulings.

And yes, there are some cities who have left their cameras on: Ellisville, St. Louis, Bridgeton and Richmond Heights, for example. But perhaps these cities should take the above information into consideration as well.

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One Response to “Arnold Defiant after Red Light Camera Decision”

  1. JC Penknife December 27, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    I must add this from Excelsior Springs: “Tuesday’s ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, has caused the city of Excelsior Springs to temporarily halt all processing of photo-enforced red light violations,” the Excelsior Springs Police Department said in a statement released Thursday. “While we understand the ruling only applies to the eastern district, we feel it is imperative to be in compliance with any Missouri court decision.”

    Not everyone feels that way.

    Like

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