Red-light cameras and the balkanization of American lawmaking

Red-light cameras are okay in Creve Coeur, but they’re not legit in the City of St. Louis. Two separate lawsuits challenging the legality of red-light cameras have resulted in two different conclusions, creating confusion for everyone who occasionally sneaks through the tail end of a green or yellow light.

Now, I’m not objecting to the principle of red-light enforcement. Naturally, I don’t want to get t-boned by a lawbreaker, and if the threat of a red-light violation makes us all pause before speeding up during the yellow, thus reducing accidents, I’m all for it. [Full disclosure: About a year ago, I did the wrong thing at Olive Blvd. and I-270 and got nailed by one of Creve Coeur’s many eyes in the sky, to the tune of $100, which I duly paid. When you’re busted, you’re busted. And that fine had the desired effect: I’m now definitely more vigilant when approaching intersections.]

What concerns me, though, is the inconsistency of the rules, the  legal mess it’s creating, and–most of all–what the whole thing may say about a much bigger issue: The balkanization of American lawmaking. Yes, I know that a red light is a red light, and there’s zero inconsistency about the obligation to stop. But, if I’m reading news reports about the court decisions on red-light enforcement correctly, the rules about red-light cameras are not the same from one municipality to the next. And in case you missed the memo, St. Louis County has 96 municipalities, which makes for a lot of opportunities for inconsistency.

So, looking at the rules for red-light enforcement in St. Louis City, one judge ruled–in February 2012– that the City’s ordinance violates state law. Apparently, in contrast to Creve Coeur’s law, a City violator could go to jail for this offense. Also, the City judge noted that  “there is no summons or court date provided with the notice of violation and the notice does not convey to the recipient the right to contest the notice of violation except where ‘the vehicle was being operated by a person other than the owner or the vehicle or the license plate captured by the automated traffic control system was stolen.’

Creve Coeur, apparently, offers appropriate due process through its municipal court. That fact makes its  procedures okay with the the St. Louis County judge, who dismissed citizens’ lawsuits against that city.

Meanwhile, in several other local municipalities–namely, Florissant, Ellisville and Arnold [in Jefferson County]–and in Kansas City, others nabbed by red-light cameras have also filed lawsuits.

So, what’s so bad about that? I’m not against fighting Big Brother.  I just think it would be a lot easier if all of the cities shared common language and legal approaches in their red-light rules.  Do cities really need to exert energy fighting these lawsuits, when adopting consistent, statewide rules would be so much easier and less costly?

Unfortunately, there are probably some  city council members around Missouri who insist on doing it their own way, and who would label my call for statewide consistency “big government.”

And that makes me wonder about something much bigger. [You can call this a stretch, but I’m saying it anyway.] Does the  one-city-at-a-time approach to red-light enforcement have a parallel in the national ultra-conservative “Tenther” movement, in which states are trying to opt out of national laws–particularly the Affordable Care Act.

Their goal is to increase the power of states to make their own rules and to opt out of laws they don’t happen to like. I’m not saying that red-light enforcement actually rises to this level, but in a scenario where every state or municipality writes its own rules, justice becomes an accident of geography. And, given America’s history of states’-rights-imposed racial segregation,  we’ve seen what that looks like.