Court Monitor

Missouri Supreme Court Restricts Photo Tickets

Multiple decisions by the Missouri Supreme Court in August erect formidable roadblocks against photo-based traffic ticketing. In the past decade, many camera-based, automated ticketing systems have been installed around our country, typically at traffic lights.

The first electric traffic signal in the world is attributed to Lester F. Wire, ironically enough given his last name, who installed it to control bustling traffic in Salt Lake City in 1912. William Potts of Detroit subsequently designed the now-familiar three-colored traffic light for full intersections in 1920, which he patented in 1922.

The electric traffic light has been remarkably successful ever since, as nearly everyone, honest or criminal, literate or illiterate, angry or happy, dutifully obeys what the light signal says. While jaywalking, speeding, and parking violations are common, it is extremely rare for someone to run a red light from a stopped position.

But cars often travel through intersections as the light turns from yellow to red, and towns learned they can reap additional revenue by taking pictures every time the light changes to red, and mailing traffic tickets to owners of cars that had not yet traveled completely through the intersection. Unfortunately, this causes drivers to slam on the breaks when the light changes color, in order to avoid receiving a photo ticket, and studies show that camera-based ticketing causes accident rates to increase.

The Missouri Supreme Court put the brakes on this Big Brotherism with several decisions in August, tossing out traffic tickets generated automatically by cameras. The result is to make photo tickets nearly impossible to enforce in Missouri unless technology improves to the point of being able to identify the driver automatically also.

In a case arising out of St. Louis, the Court invalidated the presumption that the owner of the car was the driver at the time a photograph was taken of a traffic violation. Tupper v. City of St. Louis, No. SC94212 (Aug. 18, 2015). Except for Arizona and California, virtually every photo-ticket system in the country is based on that presumption. Moreover, the Court said in its 24-page opinion that the difficult standard of proof used in criminal cases -- known as "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" -- must be met before the ticket can be enforced. For camera-based ticketing, a city could not resort to the lower standard of proof used for parking tickets.

The Missouri Supreme Court also invalidated a $124 speed camera ticket issued against KMOX radio personality Charlie Brennan. In its decision, the Court imposed a virtually impossible burden of proof on cities for photo ticketing. The Court said that a city could enforce a camera-based speeding ticket only if the Court proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the owner of the car, to whom the ticket was sent, gave anyone driving his car the specific permission to use the car in order to violate the speed limit. City of Moline Acres v. Brennan, No. SC94085 (Aug. 18, 2015). No one could prove that.

Under the Missouri Supreme Court decisions, it appears that only tickets based on photos that identify the driver beyond reasonable doubt, and which are issued against him personally rather than against the car owner, would survive scrutiny by the Missouri Supreme Court.