Judge weighing whether to toss red-light camera challenge... again

Dirk VanderHart • dvanderhart@news-leader.com • January 12, 2009

Less than two months after declining to toss a suit challenging the city’s red-light camera ordinance, a Greene County judge is again pondering whether the case should go forward.

At issue before Greene County Associate Circuit Judge Mark Fitzsimmons is whether to grant a new trial to Adolph Belt, a retired state trooper found liable in September for running a red light.

Fitzsimmons overruled the city’s first motion to dismiss the case in November, prompting City Prosecutor Johnnie Burgess to file a motion to reconsider on New Year’s Eve.

The motion claims Belt isn’t owed a new trial under statute, because his infraction wasn’t tried before a municipal court judge and he wasn’t formally arraigned on any criminal charge.

Red-light camera infractions are heard by an administrative tribunal.

“We tried to set up an administrative action — maybe we succeeded, maybe we failed,” Burgess said at a hearing before Fitzsimmons this morning. “But if we failed to create an administrative action, it doesn’t mean it’s a criminal action.”

Fitzsimmons said he’d take the matter under review, but that he felt the “nuts and bolts” of the issue were probably best addressed in a civil suit Belt also filed.

The judge’s reception was somewhat warmer than at a previous hearing, in which Fitzsimmons said of the ordinance: “"I have never in my whole life dreamed of anything like this."

He was referring to the city’s policy of ticketing the owner of a vehicle, without any evidence the owner was actually driving at the time.

Belt does not admit he was driving when his vehicle ran a red light at Battlefield Road and Campbell Avenue.

The Springfield man’s civil suit, currently before Greene County Associate Circuit Judge Jason Brown, claims the city’s ordinance runs afoul of the United States and Missouri constitutions. Those claims are partly based on the notion Belt was “surveilled without warrant,” and that his right to due process was violated.

But the city has consistently called the camera ordinance — which allows surveillance at 13 Springfield intersections to identify and ticket red-light runners — administrative in nature.

That means, officials say, that those who are fined don’t have the same rights to due process and other protections.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled a similar law in Chicago constitutional.

Brown said Monday he will wait for Fitzsimmons’ decision on whether to grant a new trial before proceeding in the civil matter.