COLUMBIA — The city expects to install two red-light cameras by the end of the year at the eastbound and westbound approaches to the intersection of Worley Street at Providence Road, despite the legal controversy surrounding the devices.
LaserCraft Inc., the Norcross, Ga.-based company contracted to manage the cameras, worked with the city last spring to do a traffic study analyzing intersections where motorists frequently run red lights. Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said the city is now ready to move ahead.
"Once we get (the Missouri Department of Transportation's) approval to install those cameras, we can get that whole system up very quickly," St. Romaine said, adding that might take 60 to 90 days.
The city plans to install 14 more red-light cameras, but those locations have not been picked. Once installed, there will be at least a 30-day grace period when violators will receive warnings in the mail instead of tickets.
The city will continue ironing out its plans for red-light cameras at a meeting Sept. 24, but questions about whether the cameras are legal remain unanswered.
"I think that there will probably be issues raised with legality, that would be my expectation," said Mayor Darwin Hindman, an advocate of the cameras. "If I was a defense attorney, I would look at all the cases and form some sort of legal defense and have what we're doing tested."
The city has been stalled by legislative threats to outlaw red-light cameras in Missouri. Amendments to a state transportation bill would have required that revenue from red-light camera fines be shared with school districts, that points not be assessed against violators' driving records and that drivers only pay civil fines.
Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, was leading the charge to pass the bill, citing mistrust of the private companies who run them and the pictures taken during red lights being of the license plate, not the driver. Although nothing has passed, it's likely bills will be filed again.
"Part of the problem we've been dealing with is monitoring the legislature," said Sgt. Timothy Moriarty, Traffic Unit supervisor for the Columbia Police Department. "They keep talking about new laws and new legislation, and we've been holding back on our program."
Columbia modeled its program after one in Arnold, a city 20 miles south of St. Louis where the red-light camera ordinance is being challenged in federal court 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.
Traffic defense attorney Bob Murray, of Columbia, is ready to defend any future clients in Columbia ticketed by the red-light cameras. He said the cameras are unlawful because vehicle owners ticketed will be presumed guilty. This would compel a citizen to have to testify, which he said violates the Fifth Amendment.
Murray also argues that the pictures taken of the vehicle license plates violate the Fourth Amendment as warrantless searches and seizures.
"No one's in favor of people running red lights, it's a very dangerous situation," Murray said. "But I think there are better ways to solve the problem."
Hindman said it's reasonable to charge vehicle owners with violations because there is a presumption that the owner would be driving his or her own car.
"In my opinion, you've got enough evidence there," Hindman said.
LaserCraft cameras will take pictures of the license plates of cars that run red lights. The pictures will be stamped with the time, date and location of the violation. Vehicle owners will be fined $97.50 plus a $22.50 court cost through the mail. Moriarty said that licensed owners can sign affidavits stating that they were not driving but that it is unclear whether the actual driver would then be held responsible.
"It's going to be an interesting issue, especially in the city of Columbia with such a transient population, people moving and teenagers who don't own their own cars," Moriarty said.
St. Romaine said it is basically up to the ethics of the driver to pay the ticket. And if the driver wants to go into court and swear it wasn't him or her, there won't be a record of their face on camera. The tickets will include a link to the LaserCraft Web site, where those ticketed can look up a 12-second video of their violation.
LaserCraft will receive $28.50 per ticket issued.
Along with a fine, the city intends to report violations to the Missouri Department of Revenue to determine whether points will be tallied against the driver's record.
Residents have criticized the cameras for their "Big Brother" effect and would prefer to be pulled over by a police officer, but Moriarty said it's not easy for police cars to stop someone who has run a red light. Even if officers see violations from the right vantage point, it is often difficult to go after them in traffic.
"The whole idea really is to reduce accidents," Moriarty said, "and it's not really meant to be put up as a secret spy type of thing to get a bunch of money for the city, which doesn't go to the Police Department."
The push for red-light cameras began in 1997, when Hindman first asked for an examination of the cost and effectiveness of the systems.
"I always thought it was an important thing to do," Hindman said. "Naturally, I'm anxious to see it put into place. I'm disappointed that it has taken so long, but I think it is an important step in the right direction."