Smiling for the camera: Judge brings easy style to red-light cases
FILE: OCT 12 2007: This red light camera in Normany is at the intersection of Natural Bridge Road and Lucas 7 Hunt road, looking eastbound and aiming to catch red-light runners in the act. (Erik M. Lunsford/P-D)
BY JAKE WAGMAN08/23/2009
ST. LOUIS — For most drivers, receiving a red-light camera citation is sure to trigger a scowl.
Meet the man who greets them with a smile.
Officially, Judge Marvin O. Teer Jr. presides over the city's automated-enforcement docket — "red-light camera court." Unofficially, Teer, 47, is the goodwill ambassador of an oft-loathed program that even one of his fellow judges has challenged as unconstitutional.
Teer eschews a seat on the bench to sit side-by-side with the accused, watching videos of their infractions on a laptop computer. He coats his rebukes with advice, humor and, sometimes, leniency.
His tendency to toss out borderline offenses showcases the shortcomings of cameras over cops and provides hope to those wondering whether it's worth their time to fight a $100 ticket.
Even for those who lose, that might not be a bad price to see one of the city's most unconventional jurists in action. MORE METRO
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"We've got a lot of good folks who scream and holler about these things," Teer said. "In any kind of program like this, there's got to be a give and take."
St. Louis, like a growing number of cities, contracts with a private firm to monitor intersections. The city gets about $69 of each fine. In St. Louis, more than 50 cameras have been installed, issuing thousands of citations each month.
Many go uncontested. Those that don't wind up in front of Teer, who hosts camera court most weekday mornings at the municipal court, which recently moved to Market Street.
Teer often works without a robe, but not without rules: Classroom voices only, please, especially when Teer is delivering his opening monologue about the importance of observing traffic signals.
And when it comes time to review tickets, the men must take a back seat — seriously. In Teer's courtroom, "ladies go first."
"Listen," Teer tells those in the courtroom, "I do things a little bit different than just about any judge I know."
Each session begins with advice: When making a right turn on red, come to a full stop. "Complete cessation of movement," Teer explains, "Not the infamous bump-and-roll. You know — the St. Louis stop."
Then Teer turns his attention to defendants. Unlike the cameras, the penalties are not automatic. His motto: "Talk to me." It might mean the difference between going home happy or with a lighter wallet.
Nine times out of 10, Teer said, he will waive citations for those who made a right on red very slowly, even if they didn't actually stop.
One got a break after video showed her car nudged into the intersection but still came to a halt. "Case dismissed," Teer said. "Have a great day."
Defendant Oliver Love, 35, of Maplewood, said Teer "made it tolerable to sit through court."
Joe Raftery, 66, of north St. Louis County, added, "He should go on TV. He's very personable."
Ann Horner, an attorney with the Traffic Law Center, said Teer was unique for putting defendants at ease. "They leave there thinking it was fair and maybe with a smile on their face," Horner said, "which is pretty darn unusual when it comes to court."
Teer's style provides an antidote to the criticism that red-light cameras are more an arbitrary cash grab than an accident deterrent. It's not unusual for him to halve the fine for a driver who has a number of camera citations and trouble paying.
He said his top concern was stopping a dangerous culture of people who "rush through life, and rush through the lights."
"I don't care whether the money goes to the city coffers or not," Teer said. "I don't care about fining."
That approach may not win friends at City Hall, where camera fines raised about $2.8 million last fiscal year. Chief city Judge Margaret Walsh declined to comment about his style.
One of Teer's views, in fact, runs counter to the mayor's office.
Missouri law does not sanction the cameras. For now, at least, vehicle owners who ignore tickets in St. Louis just get warning letters. Mayor Francis Slay's office insists they could be liable not only for debt collection but for arrest.
Not so, Teer says. "You don't pay them, I can't make you pay them," he said. "There is no provision for an arrest warrant to be issued."
The legal ambiguity continues. While a federal judge last month threw out a challenge of Arnold's cameras, Robert H. Dierker has appealed his ticket to the St. Louis Circuit Court, where he has been a judge for more than 20 years. A visiting judge has been assigned to hear the case Sept. 28.
Dierker contends, among other things, that the cameras violate due process rights. Teer has no such complaint, even though he got a camera ticket at Skinker and Delmar boulevards. He said his violation was irrefutable, even by the flexible standards of his court.
"It was for going through the light," said Teer, who paid the fine. "I was guilty."