ST. LOUIS —
Red-light cameras have led to fines for thousands of city drivers accused, by snapshot, of breaking the law.
But, for months, St. Louis officials did not follow the city's own laws regarding proper notice for the traffic cameras. The oversight threatens to cast doubt on the validity of scores of citations.
In February, city aldermen approved a bill requiring a warning sign at every traffic light with a red-light camera. The proposal was signed into law shortly afterward by Mayor Francis Slay.
City officials, however, did not follow through. The warnings were never posted. The Street Department did not even begin to create the signs until asked recently about their absence by the Post-Dispatch.
Meanwhile, red-light cameras in St. Louis issued more than 31,000 tickets between Feb. 16, when the warning law went into effect, and July 1. Legal experts differ on whether the lack of required notice is enough to overturn a ticket.
The mayor's staff, though, acknowledges committing a blunder.
"We have many ordinances impacting streets each year," Ron Smith, a top aide to Slay, said in an e-mail. "This one slipped through the cracks."
The cameras have been effective in changing habits — whether drivers are being more cautious, or because they have learned where to find the cameras. After about a year and a half, the first cameras installed in St. Louis experienced an 85 percent drop in citations issued.
The city has responded by adding cameras — from four in May 2007 to 51 now. The city's budget division estimates the cameras generated up to $2.8 million in municipal revenue for the fiscal year that just ended. MORE METRO
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For each $100 ticket, the city fetches about $69. The rest goes to American Traffic Solutions, an Arizona-based company that operates red-light cameras for St. Louis and other municipalities across the region.
Critics here and around the U.S. claim the cameras are a money grab. Research on their contribution to safety has yielded mixed results. A 2005 study by the Federal Highway Administration found the cameras led to less right-angle crashes but more rear-end collisions.
Cities in Missouri also are having trouble collecting on the camera tickets. They are not recognized by the state, and carry no points. Even parking tickets — which can lead to the seizure of a vehicle if unpaid — have more bite in St. Louis.
Fighting the cameras has become a popular political stance as constituent complaints mount. In Jefferson City, a state senator representing south St. Louis pushed unsuccessfully to ban the cameras this past session.
A similar effort had been made earlier at City Hall.
Instead, Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed proposed a more moderate step. In January, he introduced a bill seeking additional warnings at intersections with red-light cameras.
The original red-light camera ordinance already called for warning signs either "at the major roadways entering the city" or not more than 300 feet from the camera.
Other area cities with red-light cameras — such as Florissant and St. John — have similar language in their camera laws. In Creve Coeur, warning signs are authorized, but not required.
In St. Louis, Reed's bill kept the 300-foot requirement, and added another one: Warning signs must be "affixed to traffic control signals" patrolled by red-light cameras.
The bill was approved by the Board of Aldermen without objection on Feb. 6 and signed 10 days later by the mayor.
Yet the signs were not posted on traffic poles until after a July 7 inquiry by the Post-Dispatch. Smith, the mayor's aide, offered no explanation for the delay, other than it was "not intentional."
Reed says he has "no idea" why the Street Department, which answers to Slay, did not immediately act on the bill after it became law.
Reed's proposal should not have come as a surprise to the mayor's administration. It was, according to the board's calendar, the subject of a hearing before the aldermanic Street Committee, and was considered three times by the full board before final approval.
"We passed the law for a very good reason," Reed said. "The best way to prevent someone from running a red light — or even attempting to run a red light — is through very clearly posted signage."
Could the city's omission lead to red-light tickets being tossed? It's unlikely, but not out of the question.
The city's top lawyer, Patti Hageman, argues that the lack of required warning does not give violators a free pass.
"This new ordinance does nothing to change the legal requirement to stop at red lights," Hageman said. "If someone recently ran a red light and got caught, we expect them to pay."
Anders Walker, who teaches criminal law at St. Louis University, agrees. Warning notices for red-light cameras are no more necessary, he said, than signs reminding citizens not to shoot at one another.
"Running a red light is a crime," Walker said. "At best, the signs are a service to the public."
Others say the city is on shaky legal ground.
"The warning sign is an integral part to them allowing these cameras to be used," said St. Louis lawyer Brian Millikan, whose practice includes traffic cases. "That provision is for the protection of the citizens. If the city is not doing that, I think that's a huge problem for the prosecution."
Still, few drivers hire a lawyer to help them fight a camera ticket — the attorney fees would probably be more than the ticket itself.
Kelly Currier, 26, of St. Louis, was at the municipal courthouse last week paying a camera ticket she received near Interstate 44. Better warning signs, she said, would not have made a difference — she admits making a right turn on red without coming to a complete stop while rushing to work.
"I'm not going to make that mistake again," Courier said.
Jan Dickinson, a city schools teacher, was at the courthouse for a different reason — to find out how to fight his red-light camera ticket. Dickinson was irked by what he described as an abbreviated yellow light at Grand Boulevard and Chouteau Avenue.
More advanced notice, he said, is not the answer.
"Getting rid of the stupid cameras," Dickinson said, "and getting back to cops doing their jobs."