Missouri lawmaker Yates seeks red-light penalty increase

Tuesday, March 3, 2009 | 8:49 p.m. CST; updated 9:36 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 9, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY – In each legislative session the past four years, lawmakers have heard attempts to eliminate red-light cameras or limit their fees, only to never see a single resolution pass.  This year, a bill has been introduced that would seek to make getting caught running a red light on camera as punishable as being pulled over by a police officer for the same offense.

A bill introduced by state Rep. Brian Yates, R-Lee's Summit, would for the first time implement state regulation of local jurisdictions' red-light cameras.  By statute, the state of Missouri receives no funds from red-light cameras across the state.  The only mention of cameras in state law is that Missouri allows them to be imposed locally.

In Columbia, officials have been working for more than a year to establish a
red-light camera program. The effort suffered a setback in December,
however, when the city ended its contract with Lasercraft, the contractor it
hired to install and operate the cameras.

The city issued a request for proposals from other companies interested in
providing the service and is looking for one that can take pictures not only
of offending vehicles' license plates, but also of drivers.

The first city to implement cameras in the state was Arnold in 2006. The cameras are now present in Missouri's three largest metropolitan areas.  Both St. Louis and Springfield have installed more than a dozen each in the past two years, and there are five in the Kansas City area, according to local governments' Web sites.  Yates said he personally is opposed to red-light cameras, but since they apparently are here to stay, he said, it only makes sense to regulate them. He expressed concern with the manufacturers of the cameras, saying they were gouging some municipalities.

"They have no oversight, no regulation right now, and we are trying to go after their profit motivation," he said. "I think some of the cities that are caught in a bad contractual situation are losing out to the vendors, and that's where you're seeing a lot of this money going."

The law, as introduced, would ban commission on tickets issued from being given to red-light manufacturers. Yates said some cities were unfairly calibrating their lights. The law, as introduced, would require jurisdictions to register their red-light cameras with the state and pay a $500 fee.  More notably, the state would mandate that a red-light violation be classified as a moving violation, subject to a points penalty.  As of now, in every city with cameras, a violation is subject to a fine in the same category as a parking ticket. 

"We should treat all drivers who run red lights at intersections the same," Yates said. "Why should we have two punishments for the same crime?"

The bill would also make red-light cameras identify drivers by face, not the vehicle, thanks to a high-resolution picture.  Yates said he wants to end the assumption that the primary registrant of the vehicle is guilty.  At a hearing held Tuesday on the legislation, lawmakers expressed concern that tickets would be thrown out of court if the image was not clear, when under the current system, the owner of the car involved would be fined.  Yates said that indeed the law could result in an increase in dismissed tickets, but that should just discourage cities from using the cameras.

"That's their problem," Yates said of the cities with cameras. "They got in the business of red-light cameras, and I think that highlights the problem with them.  If they want to replace their law enforcement officers with cameras, then that's what they're going to get."

Rep. Charlie Noor, D-Springfield, said that with the economy as bad as it is, there is no way that police officers could enforce red-light running nearly as effectively as cameras.

"Does he realize the economy is the way it is?" Noor asked of Yates. "Putting police officers where all the cameras are would be dozens of new officers," something Yates said no city can afford. He did say he supports Yates' initiative to standardize the state's red-light camera standards and increase the penalty for violations, but that this bill was too cluttered.

"I think the bill is not structured. It needs a lot of work," he said, adding that in its current form he would not support it. "There are just too many holes."

One of Noor's concerns is that the lights would only take pictures of the driver and the back license plate. But according to Missouri's laws regarding registration and licensing of motor vehicles, trailers weighing over 12,000 pounds are exempt from having a back plate.  Yates admitted the bill would likely result in those drivers not being issued citations for running red lights because there would be no definitive way to identify them.

"Big, bad vehicles cannot get a ticket running a red light," Noor said. "So an 80-ton tractor-trailer can run a light and not get a ticket because they don't have a back license plate. How does that make sense?"

Some red-light supporters from local governments oppose the bill and said they saw it as an attempt to minimize their growth. After a witness stated that "if you're against (this bill), you're in it for the money," and Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City, called the cameras a "cash cow" for cities, city representatives said they were struggling to break even, and that red-light cameras are a safety issue above all else. 

Earl Newman, the assistant director for public works in Springfield, said the city has lost "a few thousand dollars" in the 18 months since its cameras were implemented.  He said they decreased all crashes by 21 percent and decreased red-light running by "30 (percent) to 50 percent" in 2008 when compared to the previous year. 

"The system has been good for Springfield," he said, adding that the city is seeking to increase the number of cameras beyond the 13 in place. "We have had the lowest numbers of crashes in the city in 12 years last year."

Yates said the bill would likely be altered before it is brought up again but that he wanted to promote more discussion on the idea of increasing red-light camera infractions to moving violations.  He said it was a more nuanced argument in a debate that has been divisive in the past.

"In the past, the debate has either been whether to outright ban them or cap the fine," Yates said of the cameras. "This is an equal protection argument. We need to punish the bad actor the same. To me, it's discrimination.  It's not fair that the ones caught by the police officers are the ones under the fire, but the ones on camera can get away with it by just cutting a check."


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