Red Light Cases

More Red Light Camera Cases

Since Edwards v. City of Ellisville was decided in early November 2013 we have had one more decision from the Eastern District and one from the Western District concerning red light camera cases and there is another one in the court of appeals pipeline.  You know that these cases have attracted the attention of the court when the 56-page opinion starts with a statement that ”…we take another hike through a legal, unfortunately, political minefield” citing a list of decisions on red light camera cases within the last year most of which have been in the last several months.

Since there are now have been seven red light camera decisions all of which seem to have somewhat different facts and varying results on different issues someone is going to have a lot of fun sorting out the distinctions between these cases.  With potentially millions of dollars at stake due to potential class action suits the stakes have increased.  In a sign of how serious this has become Lawyers Weekly recently reported that former Missouri Supreme Court Justice, now Dean of the St. Louis University law school, has been hired by ATS to help the Missouri Supreme Court sort this out.

Arnold Red Light Camera Ordinance Found To Be Unconstitutional.  

In Brunner vs. City of Arnold, (ED99034, 12/17/ 13) the court considered the City of Arnold (City) red light camera ordinance, which provides that the camera shall take a picture of the intersections steady red light, the vehicle proceeding through the red light, and the license plate of that vehicle from the rear.  The ordinance specifically prohibits photographs of the vehicles occupants, particularly the driver.  The police review the pictures and forward violations to the prosecutor who then decides whether or not the file an information charging the violator with a violation of the ordinance. If the prosecutor files the information the municipal court clerk issues a summons by mailing notice of the violation with the photographs to the owner of the vehicle. The ordinance creates a rebuttable presumption that the owner of the vehicle violated the ordinance based on the picture of the vehicle running the red light. Brunner received a notice of violation and paid a $94.50 fine to avoid further legal action (a warrant for his arrest).

Brunner filed a seven count petition seeking a declaratory judgment that the ordinance was contrary to Missouri statutes and the Missouri Constitution, requesting but the court declare the ordinance invalid and that it certify a class-action to recover funds paid by persons who were charged with violating the ordinance and those who have not paid who have tickets pending.  The City and American Traffic Solutions (ATS) filed a motion to dismiss, which was sustained and Brunner appealed to the Eastern District. The issues were: whether or not the ordinance conflicts with state law; does the City have authority to enact the ordinance; does the ordinance violate the due process rights of alleged offenders; do the plaintiffs have standing or have they waived their constitutional claims and are estopped from bringing those claims; and whether or not the trial court erred in dismissing the unjust enrichment claim against the City and ATS.

 With respect to standing the court found that Brunner had standing even though he paid the fine because the Municipal Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction and the proceedings were void because the City exceeded its authority in enacting an unconstitutional ordinance.  The ordinance of the City was unconstitutional because it conflicted with state law by prohibiting the city from reporting a violation to director of revenue for assessment of points and by attempting to categorize the violation of the ordinance as a nonmoving violation. Since the ordinance was in violation of state law it was void and unenforceable.  As a consequence, even though Bruner paid the fine he was not required to subject himself to the invalid procedures in the ordinance and could now proceed by challenging the ordinance in a declaratory judgment action. The court in this case takes a big step beyond the Ellisville case by holding that because the City ordinance was unconstitutional on it’s face the municipal court lacked subject matter jurisdiction; therefore Brunner was not required to proceed by raising his constitutional objections before the municipal court. “Equity would not be served by estopping Brunner from bringing his constitutional claims, but equity will be served in permitting Brunner to now assert his constitutional claims.”

The court also found that the rebuttal presumption in the ordinance was unconstitutional because the ordinance was criminal in nature. “An ordinance that is criminal in nature cannot create a rebuttable presumption as this would infringe upon a fundamental canon and procedure of this country’s and this state’s criminal justice system: an accused is deemed innocent until proven guilty.” “It is indisputable that Arnold must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the owner of the vehicle was driving at the time of the offense.” Therefore, the rebuttal presumption that the owner of the vehicle was operating the vehicle under the City ordinance violated due process of law.

With respect to the payment of fines there can be no recovery for the payment of the fine against the City however, there maybe a claim against ATS for unjust enrichment, to be determined at trial. The claim that the City ordinance was invalid because it was enacted solely for revenue purposes was also remanded for trial and further proceedings.  The court also remanded and instructed the trial court to permit discovery to determine whether or not the City contracted or surrendered its governmental powers to ATS.  Brunner v. City of Arnold, (No. ED99034, 12/17/13)

 

Comment Howard: As the red light camera cases continue (we are now up to a total of seven cases six of which were decided in the Eastern District and at least one more to come) the courts continue to refine the analysis chipping away part of their earlier decisions.  For example, it seemed to be well established by the earlier cases that there was no remedy for challenging the ordinance if you voluntarily paid the fine unless you were not properly notified as required by law of the violation. In this case, which has all sorts of ramifications with respect to challenging municipal ordinances the court determined that the ordinance is void depriving the municipal court of subject matter jurisdiction therefore there was no bar to proceeding with an independent suit for declaratory judgment without taking your case first to the municipal court where the facts can be fully developed. In addition, the suggestion that rebuttable presumptions are limited to parking violations has significant implications with respect to other ordinances that use rebuttable presumptions like littering laws or trash dumping laws where a rebuttable presumption is created that if your name is on materials in someone else’s dumpster you may have illegally used their dumpster to dispose of your trash. Seems logically to me but not irrefutable since there of course might be other explanations.

Comment Ragan: It is pretty clear the Eastern District had an opinion and went out of its way to support its opinion with selected facts and case law.  In its opinion the court takes the unusual step of relying on out of state dissenting opinions, unpublished opinions, out of state legal journals, and adopts ad hoc many of the opinions of the Appellant.  I am extremely concerned about the long term implications of this decision especially on the issue of rebuttal presumptions.  Regardless of what the Missouri Supreme Court decides it is pretty clear Red Light cameras face a hostile court in the Eastern District.

Kansas City Red Light Camera Ordinance Conflicts With State Law.

The Kansas City (City) red light camera ordinance (Ordinance) prohibited a vehicle from being driven into an intersection controlled by a traffic control signal at which an automated traffic control system is installed while the traffic control signal facing the vehicle displays a steady red signal, including a steady red arrow.  The Ordinance and notices of violation state that no points will be assessed against the defendant’s license for a violation of the Ordinance.

Paul Damon (“Damon”) and Natalia Olinetchouk (“Olinetchouk”) filed a lawsuit challenging the Ordinance on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated.  The City and American Traffic Solutions (ATS) filed a motion to dismiss, which was sustained by the trial court.  Plaintiffs appealed the dismissal of their action to the Western District.

The Western District held that the ordinance conflicted with state law because it prohibited  (assessment of points for a moving violation on the license of the owner of the vehicle) what the state law permits (assessment of points for a moving violation on the license of the driver operating the vehicle.)  The Court further held that the rebuttable presumption in the Ordinance (that the owner of the vehicle at the time of the offense was presumed to be the driver) to be unconstitutional if on remand the trial court determined that the ordinance is criminal in nature.  Rebuttable presumptions may be permitted in civil cases if there is a rational connection between the presumption and the violation but are not permitted in criminal cases.

The court also found that Damon who paid the fine did not wave his right to challenge the action of the City because the allegations in the petition were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss as to whether or not there was a “reasonable opportunity” to raise constitutional challenges before a court of law nor did the subclass (unnamed persons who paid the fine) waive the right to challenge the Ordinance nor were they estopped from seeking reimbursement of fines that were paid.  With respect to subclass two (persons charged but not having paid) the court found that due to the role of ATS and the invalidity of the ordinance those persons charged but who have not paid had an inadequate remedy at law and the class action could proceed.  The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings on numerous other issues.  Damon v. City of Kansas City, (WD75363, 11/26/13)

Comment Howard: The opinion describes in considerable detail the relationship between the City and ATS showing that ATS played a significant role in determining what cases would be filed with the municipal court.  It is clear from the opinion that the relationship described raises substantial legal questions about private parties having a role in the decision making process relating to the decision to file cases and seems to set the stage for a class action against ATS and perhaps the City for the return of fines.

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