Proposed bill would ban red-light cameras

Law would include grandfather clause for Springfield.

Jaime Baranyai News-Leader January 24, 2009

A St. Louis senator has introduced a new bill that would ban the future use of red-light cameras in Missouri.

Sen. Jim Lembke said the ordinances are unconstitutional. "Red-light cameras actually take a picture of the license plate of the vehicle in question -- they really don't know who the driver is," Lembke said Friday.
He also believes red-light cameras are an opportunity for cities and municipalities to generate revenue. "This is an example of big brother at its worst," he said.
Lembke said if his bill becomes a law, it will include a grandfather clause for Springfield and other cities that already employ the effort.
Even so, Springfield City Attorney Dan Wichmer said the city does not support the recently introduced bill.
"We think the cameras are a valuable enforcement tool and we don't agree with his position on it," Wichmer said.
Attorney Jason Umbarger , who represents a citizen who filed suit against the city for its red-light camera ordinance, is encouraging people to support Lembke's bill.
He says the cameras, set up at more than a dozen Springfield intersections to catch -- and fine -- people who run red lights, pose a threat to motorists' safety and liberty. Umbarger contends they result in more crashes.
"When there's surveillance at an intersection people become hyper-aware of the camera, and when the light is yellow they don't want to get a ticket and slam on their breaks," he said. "They (red-light cameras) actually cause rear-end collisions."
City data shows otherwise.
Comparing eight months of 2008 since installation of the camera on Sunshine and National with the same period in 2007, the number of total crashes has been reduced from 34 to 23 and rear-end crashes have been reduced from 21 to 13.
A similar comparison at Battlefield Street and Campbell Avenue showed total crashes were reduced from 64 to 52 and rear-end crashes from 46 to 41.
Umbarger said in addition to red-light cameras causing safety problems, they also threaten individual liberties.
"In our system of government, we have something called a presumption of innocence," he said. "The city of Springfield turns this on its head. There's a presumption of guilt with the red-light cameras."
Wichmer said Springfield's red-light camera ordinance, which assigns drivers a civil fine if their car is filmed running a red light at one of the equipped intersections, is constitutional.
"The court of appeals says it is. No one has a fundamental right to run a red light," he said. "It's a civil issue, it's not criminal."
Adolph Belt, a former Missouri Highway Patrol trooper, filed a criminal and civil suit against the city after his car was caught on tape running a red light.
After being found liable for running the light in municipal court in September, Belt hired Umbarger and filed a motion for a new trial in Greene County's associate court.
That case was dismissed after a judge agreed with the city's argument Belt had no statutory right to a new trial. Belt is appealing the dismissal.
Belt also has filed a civil suit against the city, claiming the red-light camera ordinance violates the U.S. and Missouri constitutions. That case is currently before Greene County Associate Circuit Judge Jason Brown.
An alternative

Umbarger proposes using a paint striping system at intersections instead of red-light cameras.
The paint stripes, which are placed before the intersection based on the length of the yellow light and how fast vehicles typically travel there, would take the guess work out of whether to go through the intersection or stop when there is a yellow light, Umbarger said.
Vehicles that are past the line when the light turns yellow would go through the intersection while those still behind it would be expected to stop, he said.
"This way people would know exactly when to stop and when to go through if the light is yellow," Umbarger said.
He says the paint stripe system would be much cheaper than the cameras.
Wichmer says the red-light cameras are much less expensive than using police manpower to monitor traffic at intersections.
He said in this time of "tight budgets and thin police resources," red-light cameras make more sense than pulling officers off crime beats to enforce red-light violations.
"All we're trying to do is keep people from killing each other from running lights," he said.