Red Light Cameras Still Capturing Pics after Suspension

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COLUMBIA - Red light cameras in Columbia continue to capture and store images of drivers running red lights despite the suspension of red light camera prosecution in early November.

Columbia city prosecutor Stephen Richey said the city decided to suspend prosecution on November 7 because the Missouri Eastern District Court of Appeals ruled that city of Ellisville's red light camera program was invalid because it considered the violations to be "non-moving," even though drivers were in motion when recorded, and because the law assessed "points" to the car in violation, even though Missouri assesses points against drivers. Richey said Columbia's ordinance had similar legal issues.

"The new ruling says you can't assess points against a car. You need to assess points against a driver. And our ordinance mirrored that so we decided we better suspend that until we get clarity from the courts," Richey said.

But Richey said it makes sense that the cameras continue to capture and store images of red light runners.

"If the law is found to be valid, then we can go back and issue all of those tickets for violations," Richey said. He said because the type of violation, it is legal for officers to issue tickets for red light violators up to a year after it occurs.

But until the Missouri Supreme Court decides to take up the red light camera case, Columbia and other cities can only wait. In the mean time, Columbia is faced with piling costs from suspending the system. The city refunded about 25 to 30 red light camera tickets paid by violators after the November 5 court ruling. That cost the city more than $3,000 dollars.

City Manager Mike Matthes said that money came from the city's general fund. It's a big change compared to the amount of money that contributed to the fund in previous months. In September alone, red light camera tickets contributed more than $9,000 to the city's general fund. But the city has received no revenue for the fund from red light camera tickets since the suspension.

Matthes said the loss of revenue is not detrimental.

"It's not making money and that's not what it's intended to do. Now we feel the loss of it in the general fund, but we don't depend on that funding for anything," Matthes said.

Gatso, the company that installed the cameras in Columbia, continues to capture and store the images of violators, but makes no profit during the suspension as well. Usually $44 from each red light camera fine goes to the company. City officials said the city is nearing the end of its contract with the company and will need to re-evaluate plans to continue camera use.

"When we get a really good understanding of what the law will mean, moving forward we will have to decide whether we will leave the cameras up there or just call Gatso and have them take their equipment back," Matthes said.

Money is a small factor of the red light camera debate for some in Columbia. Sergeant Curtis Perkins said the suspension of the cameras impacted officers' attempts to enforce red light safety.

"The Columbia Police Department traffic unit has paid more attention to the areas where some of the red light cameras are, to try look for violations that may be going on," Perkins said. "With the cameras there, it was a lot easier to do enforcement. With an officer there, even when the violation is committed, the officer has to worry about other traffic to safely go after the violator."

Perkins said officers cannot be everywhere to monitor red light runners which adds to the difficulty. Officers themselves have issued 32 tickets since suspending the cameras. By comparison, the cameras issued a total of 203 tickets in the month of September.

City officials said the wait for a decision is not easy.

"It's hard to wait, but generally time improves decisions," Matthes said. "It really is about public safety and what we've learned is they really do massively reduce the amount of traffic accidents and deaths that occur. So we know they work and our hope is that we can continue to use them."