COLUMBIA — Future red-light cameras in Columbia might capture more than your license plate if you dare to run the light. They could photograph you, too.
Given questions about the legality of the city’s current plans for using cameras to track down people who run red lights, the city has begun pursuing a system different from what it previously considered. There also are concerns, however, that any red-light camera program it implements could conflict with bills that are being filed regularly by Missouri legislators. To date, none of those bills has passed.
Bills proposed in the state legislature conflict with some of the city’s intentions with red-light cameras. It should be noted that none of these ideas have been made into law yet, but the issue is likely to be brought up again in the future. Here are examples: STATE: Red-light camera vendors will not be able to seek compensation based on the number of violations; instead, compensation would be based on the value of equipment and services provided for the system. (HB 1376 and 1772) CITY: The city’s contract with LaserCraft stated that the city would pay $28.50 per citation collected. This fee would be taken from the current fine for violators, which is $97.50 plus the $22.50 court cost. STATE: The driver will simply be fined for the violation, and the violation would not be reported to the Department of Revenue. (HB 1376 and 1772) CITY: The city plans on treating the violation as if it were enforced by a police officer and would report it to the Missouri Department of Revenue for an assessment of points on the driver’s license. STATE: No photos will be taken of the driver’s face, only the license plate. (HB 1772 and 1376) CITY: The city believes that photos of the driver will provide positive proof that the person ticketed was in fact the person operating the vehicle at the time of the infraction. STATE: Revenue collected will go to the local school district where the infraction occurred. (HB 1376) CITY: The city has not addressed this issue to date, but changes may be required in the city’s ordinance to comply with this requirement. House Bill 1376 is sponsored by Rep. Charles Portwood, R- Ballwin, and co-sponsored by Rep. Sam Komo, D-House Springs. House Bill 1772 is sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Jones, R-California, and co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Deeken, R-Jefferson City.
Meanwhile, Mayor Darwin Hindman is growing impatient with repeated delays in getting red-light cameras installed and the program working.
An immediate issue is the city’s desire to determine that the owner of a vehicle running the light is the actual offender. That’s why it wants to either change its current contract with LaserCraft, Inc. or find a new company with a camera system able to photograph both the driver and the license plate of the car.
The contract with LaserCraft was signed in 2007 and was based on the city’s plan to photograph only the license plates of offenders. Recently, the company has expressed a hesitancy to move forward with the city’s new desire to photograph drivers because its equipment isn’t designed to do that.
The city changed course after receiving a February letter from Hendren Andrae LLC., a law firm in Jefferson City that represents RedFlex Traffic Systems, indicated weaknesses in Columbia’s ordinance and predicted its validity is likely to be challenged. RedFlex is another red-light camera vendor.
As it stands, the city ordinance authorizing red-light cameras presumes that the owner of the vehicle is also the driver at the time of the violation. That, the law firm’s letter said, may be held unconstitutional by Missouri courts.
“To combat the possibility of a legal challenge ... a camera that photographs the driver of the vehicle would provide reliable evidence that the person ticketed, the driver, is the true offender,” Rodney Gray, an attorney for Hendren Andrae, wrote in a letter to Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm.
The city hopes cameras with this capability will assist them not only in identifying the true driver but also to validate tickets.
“When an officer observes a violation, the officer knows who the driver was,” Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said. “With a red-light camera violation, you really don’t.”
Hindman remains a strong advocate for the cameras, despite the legal limbo.
“I’m perfectly willing to go back and say, ‘Let’s propose an amendment that says we’ll take a picture of the driver.’ I’ll recommend that,” Hindman said during a work session on June 11.
The city is considering a criminal charge for those caught by the cameras, just as if the violation were being enforced by a police officer. The city intends to report violations to the Missouri Department of Revenue to determine whether points will be tallied against the driver’s record.
“The contract (with LaserCraft) was clear that there were going to be prosecutions in Municipal Court,” City Counselor Fred Boeckmann told the council.
St. Romaine said Columbia is trying to take legally sound steps in using the cameras.
“Most cities right now that I’ve talked to who have installed systems very similar to this,” St. Romaine said. “I’m not sure how they’ve been getting away with it, but they are not reporting the tickets to the Department of Revenue. We don’t think this is a wise course of action.”
A May 23 letter from LaserCraft indicated the company’s intentions to operate in a purely “civil context,” meaning that violations will simply be enforced with fines.
Columbia isn’t the first city to struggle with the constitutionality or legality of the cameras.
The St. Louis suburb of Arnold was the first Missouri city to implement a red-light camera system in November 2005. In February 2008, Arnold’s ordinance was challenged on the grounds that it unconstitutionally shifts the burden of proof to the defendant by presuming that the owner of the vehicle was the driver at the time of the violation.
Columbia’s ordinance, modeled after Arnold’s, includes the same presumption.
Meanwhile, several Missouri legislators have been filing bills that would heavily regulate red-light camera systems. Although none has passed, it’s likely they’ll be filed again, creating the possibility that Columbia might have to retool its ordinance in the future.
“There are about 21 Missouri communities so far that have actually implemented red-light camera systems and there is no consistency to them at all,” St. Romaine said. “We really were hoping we would get some sort of legislation that would at least give us a little bit of direction and make sure that we wouldn’t be open to some sort of lawsuit in the future.”
Amendments to a state transportation bill would have required that revenue from fines assessed as a result of violations caught by red-light cameras be shared with school districts, that points not be assessed against violators’ driving records and that drivers only pay civil fines.
Legislators have also sought to prohibit red-light camera vendors from being compensated based on the number of violations. Columbia’s contract with LaserCraft calls for the city to pay $28.50 per citation collected. This fee would be taken from violators’ fines, which are $97.50 plus the $22.50 court cost.
Hindman is undeterred by the flurry of bills in the legislature.
“We’re supposed to be a progressive city,” he said. “We made a decision to do something, and we’re afraid to do it.”
The city first approved the red-light camera ordinance in 2006. Since the contract with LaserCraft was signed, computer problems have plagued the project. Boeckmann also told the council that Columbia has spent significant time considering potential legal problems that other cities have ignored.
“It’s been two years, and right now we’re on hold,” Hindman said. “One of the reasons we were on hold was that there are bills in the legislature. There are going to be bills in the legislature from now until civilization goes up. We made a decision to put in these red-light cameras, and I think that we ought to go forth somehow.”
While the city still has several kinks to iron out, Hindman is convinced the cameras are a good idea.
“You go through any number of reasons why they are a good thing,” Hindman said. “We saw the numbers. People are running those red lights in vast numbers, they are jeopardizing innocent people day after day in a very serious way. I think after all these years that we get this decided and get this done.”