Arnold, the first Missouri community to install controversial red-light cameras, is now the first to face a federal lawsuit challenging their legality.
The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, seeks to outlaw a system that a growing number of cities describe as a safety tool, but which critics regard as a revenue engine.
It alleges that the ticketing process is illegal and unconstitutional as a violation of drivers' civil rights and a racketeering conspiracy that collects fines through fraud and extortion to benefit the city and its red-light camera contractor.
It demands unspecified actual and punitive damages from Arnold, the mayor, police chief, City Council, a police officer and the contractor, American Traffic Solutions Inc.
Fenton residents James and Kara Hoekstra got a ticket in the mail from Arnold on Aug. 15, 2007, accusing them of running a red light in a 2005 Jeep at Highway 141 and Astra Way Drive on the afternoon of July 29. It demanded a $94.50 payment.
The Hoekstras' ticket was one of 13,921 citations issued between October 2005 and Jan. 24, 2008, according to city records. Of those, 9,745 have been paid.
But James Hoekstra balked. The lawsuit he filed says he was threatened with arrest but that the city dropped the ticket after he got a lawyer.
The suit, and Hoekstra's lawyer, Chet Pleban, say that Arnold's red-light ordinance violates a state law requiring that points toward suspension be assessed against the license of a driver charged with a moving violation.
The city is committing mail fraud by extorting payment, the suit says.
The case also claims the tickets unconstitutionally require drivers to prove their innocence instead of forcing prosecutors to prove the drivers' guilt.
The cameras don't photograph the driver, so the city can't prove who is driving. The registered owner is presumed to be at fault. If the owner denies it, he or she must fill out a form or otherwise identify the true driver.
The ordinance forces you to come forward and "basically declare your innocence," says Washington University law school professor Peter Joy, who reviewed the suit at the request of the Post-Dispatch.
"In essence, it sort of compels you to finger your wife or child or someone else you loaned the car to," he said.
But Joy said that red-light camera ordinances have been upheld in most parts of the country, in much the same way as prosecutors can argue that drivers who refuse a Breathalyzer test during a drunken-driving investigation can be presumed to be under the influence.
"It's a privilege to be able to drive ... it's not an absolute right," Joy said. "A reasonable regulation can be imposed."
And he said the city would probably argue that safety justifies use of the cameras.
In fact, Police Chief Bob Shockey said the cameras are working. Crashes at the intersections with cameras dropped 22 percent in 2007, he said, and there have been no deaths since the cameras were installed. "This is a safety tool," he said.
Shockley said he could not comment on the suit. City Administrator Matt Unrein also declined to comment on the allegations.
Arnold's prosecuting attorney, Paul D'Agrosa, said that the city was told by ATS lawyers that the cameras are legal.
"It will overcome any challenge on any basis that has been thought of and in fact has withstood challenges in other states," D'Agrosa said the city was told.
He likened a red-light ticket to a parking ticket. "The enforcement authority doesn't have to prove who parked the car," he said. "They're presumed to be responsible for the parking violation."
D'Agrosa said the city will continue to issue citations "until somebody says otherwise."
Pleban hopes to be that someone. He said he also may sue the city of St. Louis, too, one of more than 20 communities in Missouri and Illinois that also have cameras.
Pleban noted that some state legislators and Missouri Attorney Jay Nixon also have criticized the tickets. But the cameras are still there.
"I guess nobody's challenging them," he said. "You do what you get away with."