St. Louis aldermen avoid red-light camera fines
A car registered to Alderman Charles Quincy Troupe is cited for failing to come to a complete stop on a right turn on red Jan. 24. on Grand Blvd.
By Jake Wagman12/14/2008
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
ST. LOUIS — When the push to install red-light cameras came to City Hall in 2005, the Board of Aldermen enthusiastically backed the plan as a boon to public safety.
But now, three years later, aldermen have themselves been caught on tape — and some have avoided the $100 fine.
In total, at least eight St. Louis aldermen have been sent camera citations, about a quarter of the board. The lead sponsor of the camera legislation went months without paying $500 in fines until questioned about it recently. Two other aldermen got their citations dismissed under ambiguous circumstances. MORE
GALLERY: Aldermen cars caught on red-light cameras
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Alderman Stephen Gregali forwarded his ticket to the police chief's office — which dismissed the ticket without investigating. Another alderman, Gregory Carter, said he got his ticket dismissed by calling a phone number on the back.
After learning about the dismissed tickets from the Post-Dispatch, Mayor Francis Slay's office warned the Police Department about "special favors for anyone."
"If someone wants to pay or contest a ticket," the mayor's spokesman, Ed Rhode, said, "he should go through the same process as any other citizen."
The mayor's office said it could not provide any information for Carter's or Gregali's tickets other than to confirm the citations were issued and dismissed.
Gregali represents the Bevo Mill neighborhood in south St. Louis, and co-sponsored legislation that allowed traffic cameras in the city.
Gregali said he received a ticket a few months ago and thought it should be thrown out because the light turned while he was in the intersection.
Most drivers who want to contest a red-light camera ticket must plea their case in traffic court. Instead, Gregali forwarded his ticket to the police chief's office.
"At the time, I did not expect to receive special treatment," Gregali said in an e-mail to the Post-Dispatch. "I have since learned the ticket was dismissed without cause. That was not my intention. Therefore, it is my intention to pay the ticket."
It's unclear how Gregali would pay a ticket that already has been adjudicated, just as it is unclear how the ticket was dismissed in the first place. The private company that administers the camera program does not track dismissed tickets.
Gregali says he is not sure exactly when he sought assistance from the police chief's office, nor does he remember who he spoke with in the office.
"I asked somebody, 'Hey, what do you do with these things?'" if you don't think you are guilty, Gregali said in an interview.
Chief Joe Mokwa resigned July 25 amid a separate controversy surrounding a towing contract that currently is the subject of a federal probe. Lt. Col. Stephen Pollihan took over on a temporary basis after Mokwa left.
A message sent to Mokwa's attorney was not returned; Pollihan was on vacation last week.
According to the mayor's office, the Police Department asked that the ticket be placed on the "void docket" in city court, which contains offenses that are wiped from the system.
"The chief's office did not review the ticket to determine whether there was cause for it to be dismissed," Rhode said.
The mayor's office said it couldn't determine whether the request was made while Mokwa was in charge or during Pollihan's tenure, from the end of July to early October. The ticket was dismissed before the current chief, Dan Isom, took office Oct. 6.
A spokeswoman for Isom said he "will not tolerate" police helping anyone, including city officials, get a ticket dismissed without a good reason.
Isom "will not allow the department to serve as a 'middleman' by forwarding any red-light ticket to the court in the future," said department spokeswoman Erica Van Ross.
The dismissed ticket was not Gregali's only red-light camera violation. On Oct. 9, he was cited for failing to come to a complete stop on a right turn on red at the intersection of Kingshighway and Southwest Avenue. That ticket has been paid.
Gregali's dismissed ticket is not the only one raising questions at City Hall. Alderman Carter, who represents the city's Walnut Park area, says he was mailed a citation last year, when a relative using his car was cited at a traffic light.
Unlike conventional traffic tickets, red-light camera violations are sent to the registered owner of the car making the violation, not necessarily the driver. If a car owner was not driving the car at the time, he can fill out an affidavit indicating who was at the wheel.
Carter says he merely called a phone number on the back of the ticket and, after some haggling, got the ticket dismissed.
"Talked to him for about 15 minutes and it was taken care of," Carter said. "You can call anybody to contest anything."
Carter said he did not identify himself as an alderman and doesn't remember who was on the other end of the call.
But officials with the private company that administers the city's camera program, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions Inc., said it's not possible to get a ticket dismissed by calling the number on the back of the ticket, which is a corporate help line.
"The toll-free number is to customer service to answer basic questions," said Josh Weiss, the company's director of communications and public affairs. "ATS does not have the authority to dismiss tickets."
The mayor's office said it could not determine what happened to Carter's ticket.
Carter contends that even if he hadn't gotten the ticket dismissed, the city does not have the ability to make him pay.
Since the number of red-light cameras across the region has increased in the last several years, a growing number of officials, including Gov.-elect Jay Nixon, the state attorney general, have questioned whether the devices would pass court scrutiny.
No state law authorizes the cameras, and some experts have questioned whether they violate due process laws.
Because most red-light cameras take a picture only of the car, not the driver, it's difficult for cities to make people pay.
"I got a lot of calls from my constituents, and I told them there is nothing enforceable about it," Carter said. "Police are not going to take you to jail if they pull you over. There is no warrant."
But the mayor's office says the city can, after a second notice for a camera violation, issue a warrant for failing to appear in court.
If so, one person who could be eligible for a warrant is Alderman Charles Quincy Troupe, who received a ticket more than 10 months ago at the intersection of Grand Boulevard and Forest Park Avenue.
Troupe, a critic of red-light cameras who has sponsored legislation to remove the devices, has ignored the ticket and says he won't pay it.
"I think the lights are morally wrong, financially exploitative and sinful," Troupe says. "I don't intend to pay a fine until I am ordered to do so by the court."
Others city lawmakers were more amenable.
"I looked at the video," said Alderman Stephen Conway, whose van was cited for failing to stop on a right turn on red. "I had a hard time arguing that one with a straight face."
Conway, though, says his wife was driving at the time.
Alderman Matt Villa paid his fine after running a red light downtown. Villa said he worries that, as the cameras expand in the city, the emphasis will move from safety to money. The city keeps about $69 of each $100 fine, with the rest going to American Traffic Solutions. Through July 2008, some 80,000 tickets had been issued.
Last year, the company had 17 cameras in St. Louis. Today, there are 50 at various intersections around the city — 26 of them south of Highway 40, and 24 north.
"My fear is that these are going to turn into revenue generators instead of what the program was originally sold to the Board of Aldermen as," Villa said. "If we continue to add cameras, then we've changed the focus from public safety."
Among aldermen, there is no greater advocate for the cameras than Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. — and nobody whose car has racked up more in fines. A car registered to his home address in the Third Ward had five tickets, including citations on back-to-back days in June.
Bosley, chairman of the board's Streets Committee, said he did not know about the violations. They were, he says, accrued by his 20-year-old daughter using the car.
He paid the fines Friday, well past the due date, after a reporter asked about them. Still, Bosley said he wasn't "going to pick up the telephone and call somebody and give me a break for something that my child did that is wrong."
"I can't do that," Bosley said. "That's not fair."
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