Arnold, Mo., sued over use of red-light cameras

Thursday, February 28, 2008

ARNOLD, Mo. -- The first Missouri community to install red-light cameras is now facing a federal lawsuit.

The suit against Arnold in Jefferson County was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in St. Louis. It seeks to outlaw the system that a growing number of communities see as a safety tool -- but which critics see as a way to generate money.

The lawsuit by Fenton residents James and Kara Hoekstra alleges that the ticketing process is illegal and unconstitutional, collecting fines through fraud and extortion to benefit the city and its red-light camera contractor. It seeks unspecified damages from the city, several city officials, and the contractor, American Traffic Solutions Inc.

The couple received a ticket in the mail from Arnold on Aug. 15, accusing them of running a red light in a 2005 Jeep on July 29. It demanded a payment of $94.50. City records show it was one of 13,921 citations issued between October 2005 and Jan. 24, 2008.

The lawsuit said James Hoekstra was threatened with arrest when he refused to pay, but that the city dropped the ticket after he got a lawyer.

According to the lawsuit and the attorney for the couple, Chet Pleban, the red-light ordinance violates a state law requiring that points toward suspension be assessed against the license of a driver charged with a moving violation.

The suit also alleges the city is committing mail fraud by extorting payment. And, it claims the tickets unconstitutionally require drivers to prove their innocence instead of forcing prosecutors to prove the drivers' guilt.

The cameras don't photograph the driver, so the city can't prove who is driving. The registered owner is presumed to be at fault. If the owner denies it, he or she must fill out a form or otherwise identify the true driver.

The ordinance forces you to come forward and "basically declare your innocence," Washington University law school professor Peter Joy told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"In essence, it sort of compels you to finger your wife or child or someone else you loaned the car to," he said.

But Joy said red-light camera ordinances have been upheld in most parts of the country, in much the same way as prosecutors can argue that drivers who refuse a Breathalyzer test during a drunken-driving investigation can be presumed to be under the influence.

Police chief Bob Shockey said the cameras are working. Crashes at intersections with cameras dropped 22 percent in 2007, he said, and there have been no deaths since the cameras were installed.

Shockey and city administrator Matt Unrein declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Pleban said he also may sue the city of St. Louis, one of more than 20 communities in Missouri and Illinois that also have cameras.

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