Are Red Light Camera Tickets Legal?

Post date: Apr 19, 2012 8:06:06 PM

**UPDATE (11/08/2013): The Eastern District Court of Appeals for Missouri (Edwards v. City of Ellisville, ED99389) struck down a municipal red light camera ordinance due to its conflict with state law. Specifically, the ordinance at issue created "strict liability" for the owner of a vehicle that runs a red light and redefines a moving violation as a non-moving violation. The city of Kansas City, Missouri recently announced that they would suspend enforcement of the red light camera tickets based on this ruling. Other municipalities with similar ordinances are following suit (including Excelsior Springs, Missouri). It is likely that this issue will find its way to the Missouri Supreme Court for a final determination of its legality. The court in Edwards specifically mentioned the case cited below, Nottebrok, and found that Nottebrok "is overruled and no longer good law."**------- Original Post Below from 4/19/2012 ---------

It's a common question that I receive from clients. They get a ticket in the mail giving them information on how to go online and see a video of their vehicle running through a red light. They are instructed to pay a fine -- usually in the $100.00 range -- and it will all be over. No court appearance and no points on your license. Just a check and a stamp, or even a credit card. Seems a little too easy for the city and police, right? Right.

For a little background on how the cameras and tickets work, you can go HERE to see a video (it definitely takes a "pro-camera" stance, linked from the Excelsior Springs Police Department website)

The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District recently tackled the red light ticket question in City of Creve Coeur v. Nottebrok, No. ED 96396 (Mo. App. E.D. 2011). In this case, the driver challenged the $100 red light ticket based on the municipal ordinance violating Missouri law. In upholding the ticket and the ordinance, the Court explained that the photographs on the ticket:

"clearly showed the vehicle's license plate number and the make and model of the vehicle, which were registered to [the driver]. [The driver's] liability for violation of [the ordinance] was predicated on her status as owner of the vehicle regardless of whether she was the driver of the vehicle at the time the violation occurred"

Based on this explanation, it seems like the red light tickets are essentially being treated as parking tickets. The police don't care who actually parked the vehicle, just who owns it.

Continuing on, the Court also discussed how the violation could be considered a non-moving, no-point violation when running a red light which, by statute, should be a 2-point moving violation for disobeying a traffic control device.

"Municipalities may enact ordinances that create additional rules of the road or traffic regulations that meet their needs and traffic conditions as long as the ordinance's provisions are consistent with and do not conflict with state law."

At first glance, it seems that declaring the red light ticket a no-point violation is in direct conflict with the Missouri statute that states disobeying a traffic control device is a 2-point violation. The explanation for this apparent discrepancy lies in the language of the ordinance. The ordinance "did not prohibit 'running a red light;' rather, [the] ordinance prohibited the presence of a vehicle in an intersection when the traffic control signal for that intersection was emitting a steady red signal for the direction of travel..."

By applying this logic, the Court concluded that the ordinance did not violate the Missouri statutes that require the assessment of points against a driver for moving violations.

Well isn't that neat?

So the City can backdoor the ordinance by saying we are not giving you a ticket for running a red light, but rather for being in the intersection when you are not supposed to be there. Based on this rationale you would receive the same ticket if you parked in the middle of the intersection and then the light turned red. I guess that makes sense.

I have a few closing thoughts on the matter. First, here is a statement from the Excelsior Springs Police Department regarding the red light cameras from their website:

"The City of Excelsior Springs began utilizing automated camera enforcment (sic) of red light violations in April 2009. While the capturing of data is automated, a mailed violation is not. Assigned officers review video and photographs of every recorded violation and then make the determination if the violation warrants a citation. If approved by the officer, a citation is mailed to violator. The violator is provided online access to view their photos AND VIDEO of the actual violation."

I have not read the Excelsior Springs ordinance that covers red light tickets (one of my personal complaints is that the City of ES does not have their ordinances available online; absolutely no excuse for that) but I imagine it is very similar to the one at issue in the Nottebrok case. Assuming that to be the case, it is fair to say that the ordinance would withstand judicial scrutiny under the Nottebrok framework. It is worth noting that you can apparently fill out a form to dispute your ticket if you were not the one actually driving the car. I've never seen the form but I imagine it requires you to implicate the person who you believe was driving or claim that your vehicle was stolen. And if you don't want to point the finger at someone else (most likely your buddy, spouse, etc.) then you get stuck with the ticket.

At the end of the day, we are expected to be understanding of the system because -- as the video from above argues -- the red light cameras have been proven to significantly decrease accidents. I think that this, for the most part, could be true. What concerns me is that the ones making most of the money off of these tickets are not the cities themselves, but rather the companies that install the cameras, review the videos and then forward the information on to the police for final determination.

As an example, according to the Columbia Tribune, the City of Columbia made $18,047 in net revenue in 2010 from the 5 red light cameras while the company installing and maintaining the cameras made a profit of $58,608.

So what is the take away from this? To me, it essentially means there is an apparent financial incentive to install these systems in more and more intersections and not just the "dangerous" ones that see more accidents. The foot-in-the-door argument of "safety concerns" is what helps most drivers stomach this big brother-type of oversight, but would the supportive drivers feel the same if they knew that the safety of motorists could soon turn into a secondary consideration? To me, it seemingly boils down to a business decision, not one of safety as most people are led to believe. I could imagine a scenario in which the company in charge of the camera installation encourages the city to install systems in more intersections. The city thinks: more cameras, safer roads. The company sees it as more cameras, more money.

But wait! I decided to check out the website for the company that handles the red light tickets for Excelsior Springs. In looking at the FAQs on, an interesting statement is made:

Q: Isn't the main purpose of red light cameras to make money?

A: No. The objective of photo enforcement is to deter dangerous driving behaviors and increase public safety. Signs and publicity campaigns typically warn drivers that photo enforcement is in use. Revenue is generated from fines paid by drivers who continue to run red lights, but this is a fundamental component of all traffic enforcement programs. Ideally, ticket revenue should decline over time as the cameras succeed in deterring would-be red-light runners. Independent audits of red light camera enforcement have shown that in some jurisdictions fines exceeded program costs, while in others, the programs didn't break even.

Wait, did I read that right? The programs actually lost money in some places? I guess they bring this up to try and show the camera usage is not 100% financially-driven but I think the upshot is even more interesting: cameras are being placed and/or maintained in apparently non-dangerous intersections. How else can they explain that an intersection is losing money? I'm sure their counter-argument is the intersections were dangerous before the systems were installed and the cameras cut down on the violations. Ok, fine. But based on this rationale, shouldn't we just go ahead and put red light cameras in EVERY intersection to make sure they don't become more dangerous? I wonder if there have been any studies that look at not only the decrease in accidents for a camera intersection, but whether -- as a result -- other non-camera intersections become more dangerous because they are not being monitored.

To take it all a step further, we could start seeing more of the "speed cameras" and head down that whole slippery slope. I know I'm being slightly hyperbolic here, but at what point will it all stop? In a few years from now is it possible that we will have red light cameras on every intersection and speed cameras on every major highway? I say yes. And the thought of that scenario is a little scary. At some point the rationalization of "we are doing it to make the roads safer" just doesn't hold water.

Ok, I'm done preaching now. Just make sure you stay out of those intersections. Well, the ones with cameras, anyway.

Last, but certainly not least, a little self-promotion. I handle traffic tickets in the following municipal courts: Excelsior Springs, Mosby, Lawson, Richmond, Wood Heights, Liberty, Kansas City, Smithville, Pleasant Valley, Gladstone. Please do not hesitate to contact my office if you need any help.