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It is 8:08 a.m., and no one is smiling.
There are eight of us waiting to have our red-light camera tickets adjudicated in Municipal Courtroom No. 1 of the city of St. Louis. The mood is not good, as we, the defendants, are receiving the city’s special hospitality.
It starts inside the main entrance to the St. Louis City Municipal Court on Market Street at 7:45 a.m., where we wait a minute or so in a security line, only to be told that if we’re there for traffic court, then we’re in the wrong place and need to walk outside around the block. I’m thinking that would be nice information to put on a sign.
Around the block there is a sign, where the words “open at 7:45”—scribbled with the penmanship of a first-grader—have been scratched out. So while the building’s main entrance is open but irrelevant to us, we the defendants shiver outside in the cold for 10 minutes or so while a uniformed guard stares blankly at us from the warmth of the other side of a door to a lobby plenty large enough to shelter us.
He does open the door, but only to allow some other official-looking person to enter. He gives us a garbage-in, garbage-out once-over and closes the door.
We are definitely garbage out.
But shortly after 8 a.m., we are garbage in, welcomed to the security line with barked instructions that sound like we’re about to be escorted to our cells. I don’t know what the first lady in line did or said, but the way they evict her from the line, I really think she’s about to get arrested.
The guard’s scowl evaporates quickly into a warm grin when still another official-looking person enters, and he leaves us waiting about 30 seconds while he vacates his post to embrace her. Then he and his scowl return to us.
Me, I’m fine until I commit the subversive act of handing him an iPad and laptop.
“You a lawyer?” he growls. “If not, you can’t bring these in.”
Thinking there might be a bottom-feeder-profession exception at play here, I offer that I am a journalist. Would that be OK?
“I told you that you can’t bring ’em in,” he replies. “You have a problem understanding that?”
“No sir,” I say.
Privately, I marvel at two things: one, how anyone could make TSA officers seem like hospice nurses and two, what kind of strange world we live in where only lawyers can be trusted with computers.
At least we make it to the courtroom briskly and at least I’m not the guy at whom yet another uniformed guy snaps, “Take off your hat!” Nor am I the lady gruffly ordered to move up from the fifth bench to the front row in the near-empty room, as if to make the eight of us appear to be a sold-out house.
No, we really aren’t in high spirits when it’s announced that the judge is making his entrance, albeit just a few minutes late to our 8:05 a.m. court date. We are not ready for anything good to happen.
We definitely are not ready for Judge Marvin O. Teer Jr.
“Good morning!” he proclaims with the sort of grin heretofore reserved this morning for uniformed personnel. “How’s everyone doing today?”
Teer adds a few more pleasantries and surveys the room. The judge’s jovial demeanor is jarring, almost surreally so, because he’s the first person to treat us with respect this morning.
Then, to my extreme discomfort, he does a bit of a double-take when he sees me and flashes an even bigger smile.
“I know you, don’t I?” Teer says. “What’s your name?”
“It’s, uh, Ray Hartmann,” I mutter semi-intelligibly. I really don’t want attention. I’m here as John Q. Public, albeit a Mr. Public looking to document the city’s prosecution of red-light camera tickets—a pet issue of mine—while perhaps netting an easy column in the process.
Judge Teer says he’s familiar with my work and sometimes catches Donnybrook on Channel 9. I’m not expecting this—and neither are my fellow defendants in the Red-Light Camera 8—especially after our previous reception.
Any concern that I might be getting unwarranted special treatment is quickly allayed, though. Teer is most definitely not your everyday judge: He connects personally with everyone else in the room, greeting them like old friends and stating that he realizes this is the only contact that many people have with city government, so it’s important to make it a good one.
He obviously hadn’t joined us earlier.
Teer launches into a disarmingly candid discussion of the red-light camera situation in the city. The judge acknowledges that a recent circuit-court ruling has thrown the city’s statute into doubt, but adds that since appellate courts have upheld such ordinances in other cases, the city is still proceeding as if its red-light tickets had validity.
Teer also concedes that the tickets are “politically unpopular,” while maintaining that he believes in the cameras as a public-safety measure. He’s especially animated in urging his audience of defendants to recognize the importance of driving safely. He talks of having no problem getting tough on offenders, citing his experience judging much more serious criminal cases than ours.
Then he acknowledges that sometimes police issue the tickets for relatively minor infractions—such as rolling a right-hand turn at a red light—and that he is open-minded to dismissing those if he didn’t see a safety issue at hand. This is noteworthy: No camera ever spoke such words.
By the time Teer throws in some lessons learned from his father—a respected longtime educator in the city who passed away not long ago—a lady blurts out, “He should be a motivational speaker.” I think he is.
Now Teer starts taking the individual cases. One at a time, we’re called up. The video of our red-light camera violation plays on a little screen at the bench, and the judge actually judges them.
The first one gets dimissed as a rolling-right-on-red, and the second one is upheld with an admonishment about safety. The third is more interesting: A home-care nurse’s transmission dropped out loudly on her way to a client—she offered tow invoices to prove it—causing her, she says, to turn right at a red light rather abruptly because the street had no shoulder.
Teer dismisses the ticket, apparently seeing what the rest of us saw, which was a pretty decent lady with a pretty decent excuse for her actions. This one makes you think, because it’s pretty doubtful—albeit not impossible—that an officer at the scene would have given a home-care nurse a citation while she was waiting for her towtruck.
The red-light camera had shown a little less compassion.
Lest one thinks this proves the point that the camera system works—that citizens have a good chance at justice—be reminded that there are only eight of us at traffic court this day, out of Lord-knows-how-many citations spit out by the cameras and rubber-stamped by the police officers who review them.
Unlike any other traffic citation, the red-light camera ticket comes to the owner of a vehicle with no court date at all. Only after getting a notice for failing to pay the ticket does the defendant get such a date.
For every person in our courtroom, there must be hundreds or thousands of people who pay the $100 fine either as law-abiding citizens or just to avoid trouble. There are likely many more who just ignore the tickets. The consequences of this course of action are unknown, but if there are none, that’s awfully unfair to those who follow the law.
What our experience in traffic court reveals is that many of the citations issued by the cameras are truly debatable and have nothing to do with the presumed red-light-running safety issues that the large camera companies peddle to cities like
St. Louis—through connected local lobbyists, generally—in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
With all respect to Teer, he’s a good judge standing up for a bad program, and I suspect the red light–camera companies would be horrified at the notion of a judge like him throwing out their tickets and revenues. They don’t want to hear some home-care nurse’s explanation. That’s why they make it so inconvenient to get a court date.
Our experience shows that a fair number of the $100 tickets spit out by the cameras are the result of debatable “rolling-red” violations that have nothing to do with safety and might even be wrongly issued. The system was expressly designed by the large national camera companies to discourage individualized debate or scrutiny.
These are, after all, the same companies that have been known to oppose proven traffic-engineering solutions that can reduce red light–running without generating ticket revenue, such as longer yellow lights, four-way pauses at intersections, and countdown cameras. They’ve pulled cameras from intersections where they worked too well in stopping red-light violations, and thus were not producing enough dollars.
So much for safety. They care about safety like Big Oil cares about the environment.
As for me, the ticket shows that my wife’s car (I won’t speculate who was driving) actually came to a brief stop before making a perfectly legal right-turn-on-red. Teer says it appeared that I was flagged because the car stopped a foot or so beyond the white line designated for stopping.
He throws out the ticket, which is nice of him. If he hadn’t, though, I wouldn’t have been upset: Watching Judge Teer do his judging was probably worth $100.
That said, if you get a red-light ticket in St. Louis—or another local municipality—it might be worth your trouble to look at it closely online. If you didn’t really run a red light, you might want your day in court.
On the other hand, if you’re in the city of St. Louis and don’t see Teer, you might find yourself with a judge who acts more like the rest of the folks who administer justice in the city’s traffic court. In that case, by all means, turn around and leave.
You will not be smiling.
SLM co-owner Ray Hartmann is a panelist on KETC Channel 9’s Donnybrook, which airs Thursdays at 7 p.m.
Commentary by Ray Hartmann