In Missouri, a red light camera program is found unconstitutional... sort of

The battle of technology and government intrusion vs privacy is going to continue playing out in the courts for some time, it seems. When it comes to government surveillance in public places and how that is used to enforce the law, libertarians tend to be up in arms while law enforcement claims to simply be using technology to increase efficiency and reduce costs. That seems to be the case in Missouri where the state supreme court has struck down the police practice of using cameras mounted at traffic lights to capture pictures of motorists who run the light and issue them tickets later. Or, to be more accurate, they didn’t strike down the program. Or maybe just part of it? (Fox 2 News)

Parts of ordinances in St. Louis and St. Peters governing red-light cameras were ruled unconstitutional by the Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday. Opponents of red light cameras say this could be the end of the program. The company running the cameras says this confirms that photo and video evidence may be used in court. New ordinances may be issued to restart the programs…

The state supreme court sided with defendants who said they were not in their cars when the camera’s took the pictures. The court ruled on St. Louis Circuit Judge Steve Ohmer’s decision in February 2014. He said an appeals court already ruled the city’s ordinance was void and invalid. As a result, Ohmer says the city should not be enforcing it..

City leaders have argued the cameras are about safety. But the attorneys for the two women in this case say the cameras are nothing but a money grab.

Reading through all the details, this seems to be another case where both sides are declaring victory after a rather confusing ruling. The motorists bringing the suit were seeking an award of attorney’s fees with the possibility of some sort of class action suit for everyone who had been nabbed by the cameras to follow. That request was denied. But the court did weigh in and say that by forcing the defendants to prove that they were not in their vehicle at the time the picture was taken the prosecutor had shifted the burden of proof to the defense, which was not allowable. Still, they were willing to let the St. Peters Red Light Camera ordinance remain in place… except for the sentence regarding points.

Honestly, I’m not even sure what that means. It almost sounds as if they’re saying that the cops can continue to use the cameras, but they just won’t be able to prosecute anyone? That doesn’t make much sense. But if nothing else, it seems to reinforce the idea that the government can use cameras to photograph the activity of citizens in the public square. As offensive as that may sound to privacy advocates, I have to agree. What difference is there between a camera taking a picture of you on the public streets and an officer seeing you with their eyes and testifying as to what they saw later? If anything the camera should be more reliable and less likely to distort the facts.

Also, having that stream of pictures being recorded may assist the police in catching a violent offender who happens to be passing through on their way from the scene of the crime. As long as a warrant is required to obtain the pictures and they are limited in use to the specific case being built, what’s the harm? Now, if the town is using this as a cash cow to just send out tickets without having to make the cops catch you then there’s a valid complaint about revenue grabbing to be raised.

But at the end of the day I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument against the underlying principle. More cameras in open air, public spaces are a net plus in the end.