Federal Judge Gives Lawsuit Against City of Arnold the Red Light

Missouri Lawyers Weekly – Copyright 2009 Dolan Media Newswires
By Angela Riley

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city of Arnold’s use of red-light traffic cameras. But opponents of the traffic cameras haven’t given up yet.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas C. Mummert III, of the Eastern District of Missouri, granted the motion by the city and co-defendant American Traffic Solutions, or ATS, for summary judgment on the grounds that the city’s ordinance governing red-light cameras is civil in nature. The ordinance would have had to be criminal in nature for the plaintiffs to be able to pursue their due process claims.

ATS owns and operates the cameras in Arnold and in the St. Louis area. The company, in exchange for the municipalities using its cameras, receives a percentage of the fine assessed against the drivers who run the red lights.

The lawsuit still has the potential to proceed in state court regarding its claims for abuse of process, fraudulent misrepresentation and civil conspiracy. But Mummert declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state claims because they raise novel issues of state law.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Kevin Slaten, of the Slaten Law Firm, said they are considering appealing the judge’s ruling, filing the claims in state court or filing a class action against municipalities that use red-light cameras.

Calls to lead plaintiffs’ attorney Chet Pleban, of Pleban & Associates, were not returned.

Slaten said he believed the next issue in the litigation challenging the red-light cameras will revolve around the Missouri Department of Revenue’s being required by law to assess two points to any moving traffic violation.

“The municipalities are calling the [red-light camera tickets] nonmoving violations and said points won’t be assessed on licenses,” he said. “So what is it, then? People aren’t moving when they run a red light? We have a letter from the Department of Revenue saying that the municipalities had no authorization to create a statute that is in contradiction to state statute.”

Slaten said the issue could be raised if someone decided to challenge the department for not assessing the points.

The defense attorney for Arnold, Edward Dowd, of Dowd Bennett, said he feels that the court has set up good precedent for future cases.

“Hopefully, this is the end of claims saying the municipality is a racketeering-influenced organization when it’s trying to protect its citizens,” he said. “There is no room for those types of pleadings, in my opinion.”

The city attorney for Arnold, Robert Sweeney, echoed Dowd’s opinion.

“My thought at this point is that [the multiple red-light camera] ordinances are more similarly related than different,” he said. “As such, this ruling is going to have a chilling effect regarding challenges to other ordinances.”

In February 2008, four Missouri residents and one business sued ATS, the city of Arnold, the mayor of Arnold, City Council members, the police chief and three police officers, alleging the ticketing process was a violation of their constitutional rights and the collection of the fines was a racketeering scheme to defraud and extort them.

Earlier this year, Mummert in a broad-ranging ruling upheld about half of the plaintiffs’ claims. He had dismissed two plaintiffs, James and Kara Hoekstra, from the suit because they did not have standing. Arnold had dropped the charges against them when they began to fight the ticket. The judge had allowed for the plaintiff’s RICO claims to continue but had dismissed claims against the Arnold City Council and mayor acting in their individual capacities on the basis of legislative immunity.

As part of his February order, Mummert asked the parties to brief him regarding the issue of whether the ordinance was civil or criminal in nature because neither party had fully addressed it. The issue came completely before the court on summary judgment.

Mummert ruled on Thursday that the plaintiffs did have standing to file the lawsuit because they were able to show “perceptible harm.” But he found that since the ordinance was a civil one, the plaintiffs’ claims became moot. Mummert determined it was a civil ordinance because it was not listed in Arnold’s code with other violations for offenses and the ordinance does not impose criminal penalties for violation but instead imposes a fine.

“The judge said the ordinance was a reasonable plan by the city to try and protect its citizens from running red lights and causing death and destruction,” Dowd said. “This decision has followed many other similar ones in federal courts across the country.”

Dowd also noted that court said the ordinance has a nonpunitive public safety purpose.

Messages to ATS attorney Jane Dueker, of Stinson Morrison Hecker, were not returned.

The case is Timothy J. Kilper et al. v. City of Arnold, Missouri et al., 4:08-cv-267.

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