First red-light camera case dismissed in Columbia

Tuesday, September 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:57 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 30, 2009

COLUMBIA — The first challenge to a red-light camera ticket in Columbia resulted in the dismissal of the ticket in court Monday.

The dismissal came after the car owner filed an affidavit claiming he was not the driver of the vehicle that was cited. Since Columbia's two red-light cameras began ticketing Sept. 4, there have been 153 tickets issued, according to Columbia Municipal Court Clerk Shara Meyer. Meyer said that only 30 of the tickets have been paid and that one other driver has filed an affidavit.

The second affidavit will come before the Municipal Court at 9 a.m. on Oct. 5.

Because the case that was dismissed was a criminal case, the records have been sealed, Meyer said. Judge Robert Aulgur presided over the case but was unavailable for comment Monday.

Columbia's cameras — installed Aug. 5 — are located at the intersections of Providence Road and Broadway, and Stadium Boulevard and Worley Street. If a driver runs a red light at either intersection, a ticket is mailed to the owner of the car for a total fine of $120.

The red-light cameras have been an ongoing source of debate for the Columbia City Council.

Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade, who supports the red-light cameras, said that even in light of the first challenge to the cameras, it's too soon to tell if change is needed.

"We don't know what we will be facing and what our options are," Wade said.

First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz said, however, that a case like this damages the effectiveness of the cameras.

"If people continue to challenge cases using that method ... that loophole may have to be closed up," Sturtz said.

Even though he has continually expressed reservations about the red-light cameras, Sturtz said he now thinks, "If we can prevent some accidents because of the red-light cameras, it's a good thing."

State Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said companies like Gatso USA that manufacture red-light cameras are "making profits off of the criminal justice system."

Of the $120 the ticket receiver pays, $41 — or 34 percent of the total ticket amount — goes to Gatso USA. Of the $3,600 collected so far in Columbia, $1,230 will go to Gatso USA, Meyer said.

Crowell said that there are no ongoing fees paid to companies for use of guns, cars or any other police purchases, so there shouldn't be for red-light cameras, either.

Gatso USA, based in Massachusetts, does not make the final decision on when to issue tickets. That final decision is made by the Columbia Police Department.

President and co-founder of Gatso USA, Andrew Noble, said that what his company offers to Columbia is unique and should be considered differently.

Noble said that his company makes, installs and maintains the cameras. Each camera costs $100,000 per direction plus the cost of processing, software and initial infrastructure, which is completely covered by Gatso USA.

Columbia selected Gatso USA in a competitive bidding process with about five other companies, according to Noble and Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine. A contract was completed in April.

Noble said his company offers "adaptability, accuracy and credibility." The cameras provide a tool to ensure safety for the public, he said.

"People need to know that the company charging them with breaking the law is accurate, credible and works around the world," Noble said.

He described one feature that Gatso USA offers: a data bar on every photo with 17 points of interest such as time, date, length of time the light has been red and how long the yellow was.

He said that is different from other companies that take the photo and data from two different sources, thus leading to possible mislabeled information or lost data.

Aside from the Columbia ruling Monday, a case involving a St. Louis judge has raised the issue of whether red-light cameras should be constitutionally allowed at all. Judge Robert Dierker — who received a red-light ticket — said that they invade privacy and infringe on someone's right to a trial.

Noble said that Gatso USA's red-light cameras are not an invasion of privacy.

"If you are driving on a public road with a two-ton vehicle, the public deserves to know that you are doing so safely and responsibly," he said.

Currently, Missouri law allows for tickets to be issued from the cameras in the same way that parking tickets are issued. And just how parking tickets may be paid by the driver and not always the owner, the same may be done with a red-light ticket.  

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