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EDITORIAL: Curtains for the cameras

Courts in Missouri and Florida take a bite out greed

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The courts are reconsidering the legality of revenue cameras, and that's bad news for the municipal taxaholics everywhere who prey on motorists to balance their budgets. Several cities in Missouri reluctantly pulled the plug on their red-light cameras last week after the state Court of Appeals said the robotic cameras have been violating state law.

Municipalities came up with the revenue cameras — in the name of "safety," of course — to evade a state law requiring the assessment of points for every moving violation. The schemers evaded this by calling red-light camera tickets "non-moving" violations for "vehicular presence in an intersection while the traffic signal is emitting a steady red light." In effect, the photograph of the violation creates a parking ticket, issued for being in the middle of the intersection at the wrong time, not a ticket for running a red light. Fining cars instead of drivers can leave unsafe and reckless drivers still behind the wheel.

It's a ridiculous excuse that a schoolboy might devise to explain to his mother that he didn't actually eat that forbidden chocolate chip cookie. It just happened to be "present" in his mouth when she caught him eating it. Two years ago, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals said this argument made sense to them.

The silly argument prevailed until now, but last week, the full court reviewed the decision in a case from the small town of Ellisville and decided the argument was too clever for everybody's good. "Here," the court said, "a common-sense interpretation of the Ordinance mandates a finding that the conduct regulated by Ellisville is not a fictional 'presence' in an intersection during a red light, but rather the actual movement of a vehicle through an intersection during the emission of a red light, commonly referred to as 'running a red light.'" Unless the state Supreme Court reverses the lower court, the cameras will have to soon stop writing tickets.

In Florida, the state's high court appears equally skeptical of the legality of photo ticketing. The judges last week listened to arguments on whether cities could establish fines before the state legislature says they can.

The cities set the cost of fines on their own without regard to the schedule set by the state. Justice Charles T. Canady, a former Republican congressman, said the law setting out the applicable penalties for red-light running denies cities the authority to set their own schedule of fines. "If that's not express pre-emption," said Justice Canady, "I don't know what is."

The case before the justices only affects red- light camera programs in operation before July 2010, but a loss would cost cities and the revenue-camera companies tens of millions of dollars, inflicting pain where it would hurt most.

The prospect of being forced to pay back these fines is giving heartburn to politicians throughout Florida and Missouri. The sight of mayors staying late into the evening signing refund checks will be an important warning that clever, profitable and illegal scams can't last forever.

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