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St. Louis Must Refund $5.6 Million to Motorists Cited by Red-Light Cameras

The city is beginning the daunting task of returning the money paid over the last 18 months by offending drivers.

by Nicholas J.C. Pistor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch / August 20, 2015

(TNS) -- The city pledged on Wednesday that it will refund roughly $5.6 million to motorists who paid red-light camera tickets.

On Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the ordinance governing red-light cameras in St. Louis. The city immediately stopped the red-light camera program and dismissed all pending cases.

Now, St. Louis begins the daunting task of returning the money paid over the last 18 months by offending drivers. Officials say they are still considering the best way to do it — all while contemplating the creation of a new red-light camera ordinance that can pass legal muster.

Full refunds will go only to motorists who paid tickets between Feb. 14, 2014 and Tuesday. Anyone who paid a ticket before that period will not receive a refund, the city said. Motorists who paid red-light tickets prior to that were eligible for a class-action settlement that amounted to about $20 per ticket.

Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer last year invalidated the city’s red-light ordinance in a case brought by Sarah Tupper and Sandra Thurmond after their vehicles were photographed running red lights. Both said someone else had been driving at the time.

Ohmer placed his order on hold to allow proponents of the St. Louis ordinance to mount an appeal. On Feb. 14, 2014, Ohmer allowed the city to continue issuing tickets, but ordered that the money collected be placed in an escrow account that could be returned if the city lost the appeal.

“The ordinance was essentially valid until it was found invalid,” said Maggie Crane, the spokeswoman for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. “We can only give refunds to the backdate of when the escrow account was created.”

The state’s high court ended all debate on Tuesday when it said the ordinance “is unconstitutional because it creates a rebuttable presumption that improperly shifts the burden of persuasion onto the defendant to prove that he or she was not operating the motor vehicle at the time of the violation.”

Crane said it could take a while for the city to establish a system for refunds.

“We will follow the spirit of the law,” Crane said. “We just don’t know how the mechanics will work.”

Crane said that while the city could contact people by mail, that could prove complicated because some people have moved to different addresses. She said the city is considering setting up a website where motorists could go to claim refunds, similar to how governments return unclaimed property.

Crane said the city will return any payments that might have been mailed before the ruling came down.

But red-light cameras in the city aren’t going anywhere. While their use is temporarily halted, the mayor’s office is considering a new ordinance to fit with Tuesday’s judicial ruling.

Crane said the cameras are a public safety help because statistics show they reduce accidents at high-traffic intersections and can also be used by police to help solve crimes. She said they expect there is political support for keeping the program because money generated from the cameras would be used to hire additional police officers in the city.

Tom Shepard, the chief to staff to Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, said his office doesn’t yet have an opinion on any future ordinance.

American Traffic Solutions, the company that operates the cameras, said it will begin working with Missouri municipalities to restart the programs, which because of the court ruling must have a way to identify the driver behind the wheel.

Across the state in Kansas City, which suspended its red-light ticket program in 2013, official told the Kansas City Star that the plans to re-establish a camera program that conforms with the law at its most dangerous intersections.

Meanwhile in St. Peters, city officials reiterated their decision announced last February to keep red-light cameras turned off for good.

However, 35 people with pending camera-generated tickets issued under a revised version of the city ordinance passed in 2013 still must deal with them, officials said.

©2015 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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