This is a $100 case. But sometimes, it’s not the money–it’s the principle.
Those are the surprising words of the Missouri Supreme Court.
The City of Springfield’s camera caught Adolph Belt’s car moving through a red light. Three months later, the City sent Belt a ticket for running a red light, and notified him that he could pay a $100 fine or request a court date. If he chose to appear in court, he faced a penalty of at least $100.
Belt requested a court date and received written confirmation that he would have a “contested hearing” to be held under the provisions of Chapter 536 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, also known as the Administrative Procedures Act.
Belt appeared at the hearing and contested the camera’s finding. A 30-veteran of the Missouri Highway Patrol with five years experience as a Kansas City traffic officer, Belt sensed that the yellow caution light cycle was too quick. He measured it with a stopwatch and presented his findings at the hearing to Todd Thornhill, a municipal judge who was acting as an “administrative hearing officer.” Thornhill didn’t accept the validity of Belt’s measurements and imposed a $100 penalty against Belt.
Rather than accept the administrative rebuke, Belt asked for a trial in circuit court and was refused, though Belt had followed the established procedure for challenging a municipal court decision. The circuit court accepted the City’s arguments that it had no jurisdiction to grant the new trial. Belt’s attorney, Jason Umbarger, took it to the court of appeals and from there was brave enough to ask the Missouri Supreme Court to review the case.
The Supreme Court’s opinion City of Springfield v. Belt summarily takes down the City’s administrative procedure for processing traffic tickets from red-light traffic camera images. The Supreme Court held that Missouri’s statute 479.010 means what is says, that all violations of municipal ordinances shall be heard and determined by divisions of circuit court, except that counties with more than 400,000 residents may have an administrative system for parking tickets.
Of course, it’s the money and the principle. The City of Springfield, like most units of government, looks for cost-efficient ways to generate revenue. Traffic cameras are generally put in place by vendors, who get a split of the revenue. The sponsoring government wants to process the camera-generated tickets as inexpensively as possible, with correspondence that suggests that if you ask for a hearing, you’ll get a larger penalty, with no chance for a new trial. But the City’s desire for revenue was trumped by the rule of law.