Red Alert: Everything they really don't want you to know about those pesky traffic-light cameras

The twenty defendants who trudged into St. Louis City's dingy municipal court building this past Valentine's Day shared two things in common: One, they all received a citation in the mail with a photo of their car allegedly running a red light; and two, they all believed they were wholly innocent of the crime. That is, until Judge Margaret J. Walsh strode into court.

Appointed to the municipal court by Mayor Francis Slay in 2003, Walsh looks something like a more comely version of television's Judge Judy. She wears her frosted brown hair styled smartly above her shoulders and speaks in an easy diction, free of legalese. In recognition of the February 14 holiday, Walsh spread an assortment of heart-shaped chocolates across her bench and offered the brightly wrapped candies to everyone assembled. But if any of the defendants mistook the sweets as a sign of leniency, they were quickly disappointed when the bailiff called the court to order.

"A lot of people think these cameras are all about generating revenue," said Walsh as she took her seat. "The truth is, they increase public safety and reduce accidents. You're here because the cameras caught you running a red light. These cameras don't go off if you've entered the intersection while the light is yellow. So that's not an issue. It's also against the law to turn right on red before making a complete stop. If you don't believe it, look it up."

Fight back: PhotoBlocker makes your plates invisible — or so says Joe Scott.
Fight back: PhotoBlocker makes your plates invisible — or so says Joe Scott.

Following her brief introduction, Walsh instructed the defendants to form two lines. Those who wished to admit their guilt and pay the $100 fine were to line up in front of the court clerk. Those who wanted to argue their case before the judge could form a line down the center of the aisle. But, warned Walsh, if she found their arguments to be without merit — or a waste of time — she had the right to tack on a $50 court fee.

Faced with the prospect of now paying $150 to settle the matter, half of the accused cut their losses and paid the clerk. The remaining ten defendants rose from their seats and waited for the judge to download video clips of their infractions onto her computer.

The first offender, a bookish woman in her mid-50s, argued that had she tried to stop for the light her car would have skidded into the intersection and caused an accident. "I'm a safe driver," she implored.

"No, you're not!" Walsh fired back. "You were driving way too fast. You're lucky a police officer didn't arrest you for reckless driving."

When the woman continued to protest the ticket, Walsh offered her a choice. "How about I let everyone in the courtroom watch this video? If they agree with you, I'll fine you $100. If they agree with me, I'll fine you $500?" The woman settled on the $100 fine, plus court fees.

Several defendants later, a middle-aged man agreed with the judge that the video did in fact show his car running a red light. He denied, however, that he was driving the auto at the time. Vehicle owners who claim they weren't behind the wheel are supposed to write the name and address of the guilty party on the back of the citation.

"Who was driving it, then?" demanded Walsh. "Was it your wife? Your kids? Your cousin?" When the man refused to cough up a name, Walsh informed him that he could either pay the $100 fine — plus court fees — or ante up $70 dollars to appeal the case to the St. Louis Circuit Court.

Sensing that he, too, was staring at a losing hand, the defendant acquiesced and opened his billfold to pay. "It's not fair," he said before leaving the courtroom. "You can't prove it was me driving the car."

"If you want fair, ask God for it," replied Walsh. "You don't get fair in court. You get justice."

Early last month Riverfront Times sent Mayor Francis Slay's office a list of questions concerning the city's use of red-light cameras. Slay's spokesman Ed Rhode answered some of our queries, but he ignored others entirely despite numerous follow-up calls. Curiously enough, one query — concerning how people who refuse to pay the red-light fines are punished — prompted quick action at city hall.

Days after we asked that particular question, Jim Sonderman, Slay's lobbyist to the board of aldermen, contacted Alderman Freeman Bosley Jr. with an "emergency" board bill the mayor's office wanted introduced. Bosley, who serves as chair of the board of aldermen's Streets, Traffic and Refuse Committee, sponsored the 2005 ordinance that first legalized the use of red-light cameras in St. Louis City.

The bill Bosley introduced on February 15, on behalf of the mayor's office, would amend the original 2005 ordinance by allowing the city to legally penalize anyone who fails to respond to a red-light camera ticket. Bosley expects passage of the bill by the close of the board session March 24.

Why the need for this special legislation? Because, as Bosley puts it, "The way it is now, if a person doesn't pay the fine, there ain't nothing nobody can do because they've violated no law. With my bill in place, they can lock you up and impound your car. It gives the law teeth."

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