Saturday, April 26, 2008

Red light tickets hard to collect on

Red light tickets hard to collect on
By Jake Wagman
Sunday, Apr. 27 2008

Mikel Ramsey Jr. has a knack for getting on film.

Or, rather, his car does.

Ramsey's vehicle has been clicked more than two dozen times by red-light
traffic cameras in St. Louis, racking up $2,600 in fines.

Ramsey hasn't paid a dime of it. But the city has not impounded his car or
hauled him off to jail. Officials aren't even looking for him.

Chronic violators such as Ramsey represent a weakness in photo-enforcement
programs, which are becoming increasingly popular in cities around the region.
Other drivers appear to be changing their habits: A sharp decline in camera
citations has been reported at several St. Louis intersections.

Because most red-light cameras take a picture only of the car — not the driver
— it's difficult for cities here and around the country to make people pay.

Some cities have sought to address the shortcomings by employing a creative
definition of what it means to run a red light, or making it a separate crime
to ignore the violations notice.

Meanwhile, hundreds of area drivers each month dutifully pay the tickets when
they are caught running a red light.

Those who don't?

Officials acknowledge that, for now, there's little they can do.

"If you threw it in the trash," says St. Louis Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr.,
chairman of the aldermanic Traffic Committee, "nothing would happen."


In 2005, Arnold became the first city in the area to install the cameras. Since
then, St. Louis, Florissant, Creve Coeur, Hazelwood, Bel-Nor and St. John have
followed. Brentwood and even the tiny hamlet of Moline Acres — with an area of
less than a square mile — installed cameras recently.

As they've spread, the cameras have generated a litany of complaints.

A federal suit was filed this year alleging that Arnold's red-light program
violates due process rights. Some have raised concerns about the politically
connected consultants that helped sell the cameras to local governments. Others
have questioned whether profit, not safety, is the real motive.

In St. Louis, the cameras have raised more than $1.4 million since they were
activated nearly a year ago. But the citations and revenue have steadily
declined at several intersections— evidence, the city says, that the streets
are safer.

Legally, red-light traffic cameras occupy a gray area between a parking ticket
and a speeding citation. They are not considered moving violations, like
running a stop sign; but the usual penalty doled out by the cameras — $100 —is
far more pricey than the penalty for an expired meter.

The cameras are not sanctioned by the state, sometimes leaving cities to rely
on model ordinances drafted by the for-profit camera companies — who get a
slice of each ticket.

One of the toughest steps, local officials are finding, is putting teeth into
the collection process. In Arnold, about 30 percent of the citations issued
from October 2005 through January had not been paid. The nonpayment rate in St.
Louis is about 35 percent.

The problem rests in how the cameras operate. In most of the local
intersections where the devices are installed, they capture only the license
plate of the car running the red light. A notice is then sent to the registered
owner of the vehicle.

For a regular traffic ticket, failure to respond often results in a judge's
ordering a warrant to arrest the driver.

But on the majority of red-light camera tickets, the court cannot be sure that
the registered owner of the vehicle was driving — making it difficult to issue
a warrant. The reason is simple: It's tough to arrest the culprit if his or her
identity is unknown.

Sometimes, the owner of the vehicle is not even a person. According to St.
Louis court records, Enterprise Rent-A-Car owes $1,100 in red-light fines to
the city. An Enterprise spokesman says that when the company gets red-light
citations, it typically signs a court affidavit transferring responsibility to
the person renting the car at the time.

Rental car drivers aren't the only ones with large red-light tabs in St. Louis.
At least nine others owe the city $700 or more.

In Florissant, a pair of vehicles has each racked up $1,200 in fines. Two
drivers from out of state — one from Peoria, Ill., the other from Philadelphia
— owe Florissant $500 apiece.

"Right now, we have no active program to go after these people other than
request that they comply with the law," said Timothy W. Kelly, the municipal
judge in Florissant.


Kelly presides over red-light camera court, held four times a month in
Florissant. There, drivers contesting tickets face what is often fairly
convincing evidence — a video of them cruising through the light. But if a
driver decides to ignore the ticket altogether, the next step is typically just
another letter requesting that they respond.

"It's not enough," Kelly said. "We need to take more steps."

Fighting a ticket in Florissant court this month was Kirtsan Gray, of Alton,
who unsuccessfully argued that a family member — he wasn't sure which — was
driving his car. Finding no sympathy from the judge, Gray said he would follow
the recommendation of his attorney.

"He pretty much told me, 'Throw it in the trash,'" Gray said while leaving the
court room.

Indeed, some local lawyers suggest the tickets would not pass legal muster.

"The cameras are evidence that you violated the law — and it's good evidence,"
said Todd Mandel, a lawyer in St. Louis. "The problem comes when they cannot
identify the driver. Just to arrest the person who's the owner would not be

Most drivers seem to pay anyway.

"People who do the right thing pay the price," lawyer Greg Kessler of Clayton


Many cities that use red-light cameras have an agreement with American Traffic
Solutions, an Arizona firm that supplies the technology in exchange for about a
third of the fines recovered.

A spokesman for the company, Dan Reeb, said it was up to the cities to develop
an effective way to collect.

"I think the cities are going to find ways to make you pay — one way or the
other," Reeb said, just as they do with parking tickets and other infractions.

Cities elsewhere have taken varied approaches to enforcing red-light camera
violations. Some go after your car. Others, only your finances.

In Philadelphia, the program is run by the city's parking authority, which can
boot cars that pile up three or more unpaid camera violations. In Seattle,
offenders who don't pay may not be able to renew their license plates. In
Houston, the red-light penalties are considered "civil" fines that carry no
criminal penalty.

"The most impact it will have is on one's credit report," said Houston police
spokesman John Cannon.

St. Peters, which has had cameras running since November 2006, contracted with
a competitor of American Traffic Solutions — Redflex, also based in Arizona —
that offers a more precise lens. Redflex cameras take a picture of the driver,
as well as the license plate, making it easier to go after violators.

"You can't put out a warrant for someone if you don't know who was behind the
wheel," said Lorna Frahm, the municipal prosecutor. "Well, we don't have that
problem in St. Peters."

But that system has its own drawbacks: Drivers cover their faces to avoid
detection. Of those issued tickets in 2007, more than one in five didn't pay.

Creve Coeur does not take pictures of drivers but has been able to maintain
close to a 90 percent collection rate on red-light camera fines. Part of its
success may have to do with the fine print of the municipal code.

Last year, Creve Coeur established the infraction of "violation of public
safety at intersections," committed when a "motor vehicle of which that person
is an owner is present in an intersection" while the traffic signal is red. The
law applies only at intersections with cameras. It also allows the city to
prosecute individuals for simply not responding to a citation notice.

Creve Coeur city attorney Carl Lumley says he believes, based on cases
elsewhere, that the tactic would pass legal scrutiny — though it's never been
tested there.

"I can't tell you that I have a court that says, 100 percent, this is OK.
Because I don't," Lumley said. "It's just our opinion."

The approach — crafting new laws narrowly tailored to help aid camera
enforcement — strikes one expert as dubious.

"It's what they did to Al Capone," said St. Louis University law professor Eric
J. Miller. "They really wanted Al Capone for racketeering, but they could only
prove tax violations. This is worse. Here they are creating a specific crime to
punish you because they cannot get you on the first crime."


Even so, St. Louis may take a similar route, with a bill Bosley says he will
soon introduce that would also make it a violation not to respond to a camera

A spokesman for Mayor Francis Slay said he did not support such a proposal.
Unlike Bosley, Slay's office believes that the city can, under current law,
issue warrants for red-light camera citations — though it has not yet done so,
even as violators amass four-figure totals for fines.

What is clear is that the number of red-light camera violations at St. Louis
intersections that have had them the longest has dropped sharply since the
devices went live last year. The camera at the intersection of Delmar and
Skinker boulevards, for instance, issued 925 tickets in its first full month of
use last year. In February, the same camera registered only 409 violations.

Whether that means that the roads are safer or just that drivers have learned
where the cameras are is hard to say.

"Less red-light violators means less chances of accidents, which means safer
intersections," said Ron Smith, a top aide to the mayor.

Smith maintains that the city keeps a list of high-priority offenders who could
face arrest at some point — but he did not know when.

At the moment, though, the city has not demonstrated an ability to catch repeat
offenders such as Ramsey — whose car was photographed 26 times by red-light

Ramsey, 28, could not be reached for comment, but a lawyer who has represented
him previously said his advice was not to pay the fines.

The lawyer, Herman Jimerson, said the city had no way of knowing if Ramsey was
driving the car at the time of the infractions, or if he had lent the vehicle

"We are not into enforcing moral obligations here," Jimerson said. "If they are
saying he violated the law, I say prove it. And I don't think they can."