Ever since red light cameras were first installed in Missouri in August 2005, they have drawn persistent public ire. As of 2012, there were at least six different lawsuits pending in the State challenging the legality of the camera ticketing system. With the new developments out of the Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri, the debate rages on and shows no signs of dying down any time soon.

Kilper v. City of Arnold, MissouriThe First of Many Challenges

The city of Arnold, Missouri was the first municipality in the State to implement a red light camera ordinance in 2005. Litigation commenced within a few years after the ordinance’s implementation.

The first suit challenging Missouri’s red light cameras was actually brought in federal court. In Kilper v. City of Arnold, Missouri, 4:08cv0267 TCM (E.D. Mo. 2009), numerous plaintiffs receiving red light tickets issued relying upon the use of an intersection camera sued the city of Arnold, the ticket servicing contractor American Traffic Solutions (“ATS”), the mayor of Arnold, various city council members, and a handful of police officers involved in reviewing the camera evidence and issuing citations based on the evidence. Originally, the ordinance authorizing the use of the red light cameras assessed a fine for violation of the ordinance.

A year after enactment, the ordinance was amended to replace “fine” with “penalty” and to assess “no points [to] the violators drivers [sic] license when guilty of an automated red light enforcement violation.” The ordinance provides that if the “City proves (1) that a motor vehicle was being operated; (2) that the operation was in violation of [the ordinance]; and (3) that the defendant is the owner of the motor vehicle, then a rebuttable presumption exists that the owner of a motor vehicle was the operator of the vehicle at the time and place the violation was captured by a recorded image.” The ordinance goes on allow the defendant to rebut the presumption by furnishing evidence proving one or more of the following affirmative defenses by a preponderance of evidence:

(1) the traffic-control signal was not sufficiently legible;
(2) the driver was acting at the direction of a police officer;
(3) the driver violated the traffic-control signal to yield to an approaching emergency vehicle;
(4) the vehicle was part of a funeral procession;
(5) the vehicle was operated as an authorized emergency vehicle;
(6) the vehicle was stolen;
(7) the license plate depicted was stolen;
(8) the vehicle was being operated by a person other than the owner, provided the owner submits an affidavit or testifies under oath at the municipal court proceeding to identify the actual driver at the time of the violation; or
(9) the presence of hazardous road conditions, such as ice, made compliance more dangerous than non-compliance.

The City entered into a contract with ATS to install, operate, maintain, and repair the cameras installed at choice intersections, as well as to allow the appropriate city officials web-based access to the camera’s photograph and citation system. Once the camera captures the license plate of the defendant’s vehicle crossing the stop line at the intersection upon the traffic light becoming red, the photographic evidence is then reviewed by the city’s officers who then determine whether or not an ordinance violation has occurred. Upon determining the commission of a violation, the officer then consults databases to match the license plate of the offending vehicle to the vehicle’s owner. If, based on the information submitted by the officer the prosecutor finds sufficient grounds, the prosecutor may elect to charge the defendant with violation of the ordinance via a complaint (referred to as a “Notice of Violation”) containing the prosecutor’s electronic signature. The complaint is then generated and issued via a web-based citation system owned, operated, and maintained by ATS to the vehicle owner by mail.

The complaints contained three photographs of the offending vehicle and had a statement by the verifying officer that found “probable cause” that the defendant was operating the offending vehicle at the date, time, and place noted on the complaint. The complaint also stated that the fine can be paid, but if paid, will constitute an admission of “guilt or liability.” The complaint further advised the recipient that a hearing may be requested or that the defendant can fill out an affidavit stating that the defendant was not operating the vehicle at the time and date stated in the citation and can identify the person who was driving the vehicle at the time the violation occurred in order to avoid liability. Lastly, the complaint warned the defendant that, “[y]our failure to appear in court at the time specified on this citation or otherwise respond to this Notice of Violation as directed may result in a warrant being issued for your arrest.”

None of the three plaintiffs in the Kilper case paid the red light citations received via ATS on behalf of the city of Arnold. The plaintiffs alleged numerous § 1983 constitutional violations, as well as civil RICO violations. In analyzing the § 1983 constitutional challenges, the Court honed in on a critical argument as to whether Arnold’s red light camera ordinance was civil or criminal in nature. Plaintiffs argued that the ordinance was criminal in nature, in that the ordinance used language by the certifying officer that stated there was “probable cause,” advising the violators that paying a fine would result in an admission of “guilt” and that there was a possibility of jail time in failing to respond to the complaint. Plaintiffs argued that based on the perception that the violation was criminal in nature, the ordinance presented a conflict where the ordinance created a “rebuttable presumption” that the vehicle owner was the violator, thereby placing an improper burden and standard of proof upon the violator to present an affirmative defense by a preponderance of evidence in order to avoid penalty.

The Kilper court first analyzed legislative intent to determine whether the ordinance was meant to be civil or criminal in nature. The Court held that although there was no express language indicating the ordinance was civil in nature, it was implicit in the drafting and operation of the ordinance. The location of the ordinance in the city’s code was within the civil rather than the criminal section. Further, the 2006 amendment to the ordinance which made changes to avoid application of criminal penalty for violations was used to further argue that the ordinance was civil in nature.

Having determined that the ordinance is civil in nature, the Court then turned its attention to considering whether the penalty portion of the ordinance was so punitive that despite its categorization as a civil ordinance, it had a criminal effect when enforced. Numerous factors are considered in the analysis and a standard of “only the clearest proof” would suffice to transform a civil law into a criminal one.

The first factor is whether the law imposes a “affirmative disability or restraint” akin to forfeiture of assets or imprisonment. The Kilper court determined that an imposition of a monetary penalty was not an “affirmative disability or restraint” in the way the term has commonly been used. Second, the court analyzed whether the penalty was historically regarded as a punishment. Finding that monetary fines have been imposed in civil cases, the court found that the imposition of a fine was not indicative on its own of a criminal law. Third, the court looked to whether there was a scienter element. Finding that the ordinance did not have a mens rea element, the court opined that the ordinance was not intended to be retributive. Fourth, if the law is intended to have a retributive or deterrent effect, it may be criminal in nature. However, the court’s scienter determination held that the ordinance was not intended to be retributive and therefore the deterrent effect of a monetary penalty by itself, while deterrent, was not sufficient to confer upon the ordinance a criminal categorization. Fifth, the court looked to whether the behavior prohibited by ordinance was already considered criminal in nature. Acknowledging that while running a red light may be tied to a criminal offense, that fact alone is insufficient to find the ordinance is criminal in application. Sixth, finding the ordinance furthers a non-punitive public safety purpose – namely, prevention of collisions at intersections – bolsters the argument that the ordinance was civil rather than criminal in nature. Finally, the court examined whether the penalty was excessive when considered in light of the aims of the ordinance. Finding that the only penalty the city was permitted to impose under ordinance was a monetary fine, not imprisonment, the court found that the penalty was proportionate to the public safety aims of the ordinance.

The court then addressed the plaintiff’s argument that the ordinance’s application of the rules of criminal procedure mitigated in favor of finding that the ordinance was criminal in nature. The court quickly dismissed the argument, stating, “the applicability of state criminal procedural rules to an Ordinance violation proceeding is not sufficient to change the nature of the Ordinance and its remedy from civil to criminal.” The court relied heavily on decisions from North Carolina, Illinois, Oregon, and Tennessee in finding the red light ordinance civil rather than criminal in nature. Because the ordinance was merely civil in nature, constitutional due process safeguards that typically apply in criminal cases were not found applicable to the plaintiffs in the Kilper case and their § 1983 claims were accordingly dismissed.

Part 2: The Aftermath of Kilper