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

Mayor Francis Slay

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."

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."

As it stands now, the city will not issue a bench warrant against car owners who do not respond to tickets generated from the traffic cameras, nor will it turn their names over to a collection agency. So what will the city do? "Nothing," states the laconic Rhode. Surprised? So were we. But then, as we've discovered, there are many things the city doesn't want the public to know about its red-light cameras.

City officials insist the cameras that are installed at 21 city intersections are used solely to improve public safety, not to generate revenue. So they'd prefer the $1.9 million the program has collected in just its first ten months of operation not be emphasized. City hall is also hesitant to advertise the additional $900,000 that's gone to Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the private company that installs and monitors the cameras, and then splits the fines with the city.

Other issues the city would rather not highlight include the fact that the cameras have inconclusive safety results, they're not used exclusively at the city's "most dangerous" intersections and their very use stands on shaky legal ground.

"These tickets are offensive to anyone who cares about the Constitution," voices Steve Ryals, a Saint Louis University law professor and former general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. "The judge brings them up there and says, 'OK, why aren't you guilty?' But what the poor citizen doesn't understand is that the videotape is not sufficient evidence in which they can be found guilty of anything. There's not an image of you driving the car, and the city has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the offense."

Of the hundreds of people who've disputed their red-light citations at the St. Louis Municipal Court, just two have filed an appeal. Later this month, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Barbara Peebles will hear the case of a man who's acquired three citations for running stoplights on Hampton Avenue. The other appeal, involving a driver who failed to come to a full stop before turning right on red, was to be heard last month.

Kirkwood resident Ronald Edelman argued in his petition to the circuit court that the red-light citations violated his Fifth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution by compelling him to testify against himself. Edelman dismissed his appeal days before his scheduled hearing, but several civil-rights attorneys say he might have had a case.

"I think anyone who wants to fight this is going to win," says Clayton civil-rights attorney Bevis Schock. "All you have to do is evoke your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. The judge can't prove you did it."

The problem, adds Schock, is that few people have the time or willingness to challenge the citations before a judge. "This just isn't the right hill to die on, which is why it's such a great way to raise revenue for the city," says Schock. "I get calls from clients about this all the time, and I tell them, 'Look, it's a hundred bucks. Just pay it.' Now, if they start locking people up over these, I think you're going to have civil-rights attorneys who are just going to have a field day."

Alderman Bosley admits that the bill he's sponsoring isn't perfect, but he insists that measures are needed to penalize the guilty. "There is always going to be the question: 'How can you fine Joe Blow for running a red light when it was Suzie Q. who was actually driving the car?'" says Bosley. "But by giving the law teeth, hopefully we can create an atmosphere where we can get down to prosecuting the true guilty party."

Since Arnold became the first Missouri city to pass an ordinance approving the use of red-light cameras in 2005, the state's appellate courts and supreme court have yet to weigh in on the issue. But last week St. Louis County residents James and Kara Hoekstra filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Arnold and American Traffic Solutions. ATS also monitors the cameras in that Jefferson County municipality.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis argues that the city's red-light ordinance is unconstitutional and violates state law by guaranteeing that no points will be assessed to a moving violation if the required fine is paid. Criminal defense attorney Chet Pleban, who represents the Hoekstras, also alleges that Arnold officials violated federal racketeering laws by using the mail and Internet "as part of their broader scheme to defraud plaintiffs" and "by collecting fines when they could never prove a violation."

Pleban says he's considering a similar suit against St. Louis City. "I have a client in the city who just missed his court date," says Pleban. "I'm waiting to see what they do to him. I dare them to lock him up."

Attorney Steve Ryals suggests the way the city prosecutes cases in the municipal court also presents a conflict of interest. Unlike the city's circuit court, in which judges are appointed by the governor and subject to retention votes, judges in the municipal court are appointed by Mayor Slay — whose staff lobbied hard to bring the red-light cameras to St. Louis. (See Chad Garrison's "Red Light, Green Light," February 1, 2006.) City Counselor Patty Hageman, whose office prosecutes the red-light citations, also serves at the pleasure of the mayor. (The mayor's office did not make Hageman available for comment for this story.)

"I think that further informs you of the impartiality that you'll find in municipal courts," comments Ryals. "Now, I've been in municipal courts where the judge does the right thing, but there's not a lawyer out there practicing who would say that's the case in every city."

Cha-ching! Is that the sound of a cash register or the telltale click of a camera flash? Both have a similar sound and, in the case of red-light cameras, both mean one thing: money. Since the city's photo-enforcement program went into effect last May, the city has mailed more than 36,000 red-light citations, averaging 125 tickets a day, five citations per hour. To date, some 28,000 people have dutifully paid the fines, providing the city with a collection rate of more than 80 percent.

For each $100 fine collected, $68.67 goes to the city's general revenue fund. The remaining $31.33 is sent off to American Traffic Solutions. Revenue for both entities is expected to increase next year. The original plan called for the city to install cameras only at ten of its "most dangerous intersections," in the words of Mayor Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford. All of which begs the question: Do red-light cameras really improve public safety?

This past January, St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa wrote a letter to the editor in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stating that "local and national studies indicate that cameras are an effective tool in altering behavior." Exactly which studies Mokwa was citing is unclear. The police chief was unavailable for comment for this story, but police department spokeswoman Schron Jackson informs the RFT that the department has yet to study the efficacy of the cameras in St. Louis.

Nonetheless, a 2001 report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that intersections with traffic cameras in Oxnard, California, saw a 29 percent decrease in injury crashes. The cameras also led to fewer accidents at other street corners. The IIHS study is often cited by policymakers who are looking to defend red-light cameras.

More recent studies, though, have found the cameras to have significant drawbacks.

A 2005 report published by the Federal Highway Administration showed that while red-light cameras lowered right-angle (or "T-bone") collisions at intersections by 25 percent, the cameras increased rear-end collisions by 15 percent, owing to drivers slamming on their brakes to avoid a ticket.

Another study, published last year by the Virginia Transportation Research Council, found that the cameras led to an increase in comprehensive crash costs as a result of the increased frequency of rear-end collisions. Still another report from the Texas Transportation Institute discovered that extending the length of the yellow signal by one second had a much greater impact on reducing accidents than the use of traffic cameras.

In 2006 Jeff Rainford told the RFT that Slay's interest in red-light cameras began after the tragic case of Eunice Felder, an 82-year-old woman killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street at the corner of McCausland and Plateau avenues in Dogtown. "That's pretty much what started it," Rainford said at the time.

Why, then, does that intersection not have a camera today? Slay spokesman Ed Rhode says it's because the mayor doesn't get involved in selecting which street corners receive cameras. Still, the fact remains that the cameras aren't used specifically at the city's "most dangerous" intersections — at least not according to accident statistics maintained by the St. Louis police.

For example, in October the corner of Memorial and Walnut streets downtown became the seventh city intersection to receive red-light cameras. But that corner is listed as only the 44th most dangerous street-crossing in the city, according to the police. Meanwhile, the corner of Grand Boulevard and Gravois Avenue had 91 accidents in 2006, ranking it as the fifth most dangerous intersection. Yet that intersection does not have red-light cameras installed.

Rhode explains that the city chooses intersections based on an "informal process" that takes into consideration input from the courts, the police department and the city counselor's department. "The primary criteria is safety," ensures Rhode.

State Representative Charles Portwood isn't convinced. This past December, the Ballwin Republican authored legislation to standardize the way Missouri municipalities employ photo-enforcement programs. Among the many mandates outlined in his bill is a provision requiring cities to evaluate their photo-enforcement programs every three years to determine what, if any, effect they have on public safety.

Officials in other states have been accused of shortening the length of yellow lights that are equipped with cameras. To prevent similar allegations in Missouri, Portwood's bill would require the Missouri Department of Transportation to certify the signal timing on all lights equipped with cameras.

"Don't get me wrong," says Portwood. "I'm not trying to get anyone out of trouble for running a red light. I just think there ought to be standards, and everyone ought to know those standards. Right now, the state is prohibited from auditing red-light companies because there is no law on the books on how the state can direct these companies and what to do if there is a problem with one."

Portwood filed a similar bill last year that was attached to another piece of legislation. He believes the bill had enough votes to clear the Missouri House of Representatives, but it died when legislators struck down the accompanying measure. The lawmaker says lobbyists for the red-light camera industry are now pushing hard for statewide legislation that could mitigate controversy surrounding the cameras in St. Louis City, Arnold and other municipalities.

"The industry wants a state law addressing the cameras so they can say, 'Hey, the legislature is OK with us,'" says Portwood. "But my fear is that they'll force movement of a bill that does nothing and doesn't have the checks and balances of the one I've crafted."

The state representative also has a provision in his bill requiring that no fine from red-light cameras exceed $100 — including court costs — and that all the money collected goes to the local school district.

"All I'm saying is that if it's really about public safety, then money should be no object," reasons Portwood. "It shouldn't matter if we spend it on the schools or whatever. But in theory, if the cameras worked as well as advertised, they'd already be coming down because there would be no revenue."

Joe Scott speaks with the silver tongue of a criminal defense attorney — and for good reason. His Pennsylvania-based company makes and distributes PhotoBlocker, an aerosol spray that is said to make your license plate "invisible" to red-light cameras.

"We're not encouraging anyone to run red lights or speed," stresses Scott. "All we're saying is that the system is rigged. It's not a level playing field. These cameras are notorious for making mistakes and police departments have been found to shorten the length of yellow lights to set traps. Under those circumstances, you have a right to protect yourself from unjust traffic tickets."

PhotoBlocker leaves a glossy sheen on the license plate that reflects the flash from a camera, resulting in an overexposed image. "The law says that your license plate has to be visible, but nowhere does it say it has to be photogenic," argues Scott. "If they can't read the numbers on your license plate, they don't know who you are and they can't send you a ticket."

Seven years after first crafting Photo­Blocker out of a secret recipe of shellac, varnish and sundry chemicals, Scott boasts he's sold nearly 600,000 cans of the ticket repellent. Dozens of Internet vendors sell the product for prices ranging from $19.99 to $29.99. Yet for all its popularity online, few — if any — local retailers stock it.

"We do not condone it," states a matter-of-fact cashier at Advance Auto Parts in south St. Louis. Ditto the response from a clerk at a local O'Reilly Auto Parts. "We don't stock it, but I wish we did," says an employee at the AutoZone in Maplewood. "I've been looking to get some for my car. Let me know where you find it."

In 2005 the Illinois General Assembly passed a law prohibiting the use of PhotoBlocker and any related products that "obstruct the visibility or electronic image recording of the license plate." But the product remains perfectly legal in Missouri.

"We don't have anything on our books prohibiting it," confirms David Griffith, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Revenue. "But does it work? It sounds too good to be true," he adds.

PhotoBlocker, according to Scott, has a failure rate of less than 1 percent. "If it doesn't work, why would the great state of Illinois ban PhotoBlocker?" he asks. "Illinois banning our product was the best thing in the world for us. Sales shot through the roof!"

Television stations from Denver to Australia have put PhotoBlocker to the test. Most media reports conclude that the product works to some degree. We tested it out last month on the RFT Street Team machine, a garish red Mini Cooper. In doing so, it is possible we may have made a right turn on red without coming to a complete stop at the corner of Delmar and Skinker boulevards.

Given that our paper's logo is plastered all over the vehicle, you'd think city officials would be able to pinpoint the perp, even if they couldn't view the plates. So far, we've yet to receive a ticket. Maybe it's in the mail. We'll keep you posted.

About The Author

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.