Supreme Court rules PhotoCop unconstitutional

Photo cop in inaction
The "Stop on Red cameras" in Minneapolis have been ruled unconstitutional by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Will Shapira got a ticket in the mail that he had run a red light traveling over a bridge on east Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. He paid the fine and then took part in challenging the ordinance when approached by a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I thought it was worth cooperating with the ACLU volunteer attorney on privacy rights and to get my 142 bucks back," Shapira said.

The PhotoCop program was controversial from the start. Namely because the cameras photographed the license plates of vehicles running red lights. The problem was the vehicle's registered owner got a ticket in the mail, regardless if the owner was driving at the time.

The ordinance presumed the owner was at fault. So the onus was on the owner to prove he or she was not the driver who ran the red light.

The justices found that and other issues in the ordinance troubling. Namely, that owners had to prove they were not guilty.

The court said regardless if running a red light is a petty misdemeanor, drivers are still presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The driver has no obligation to prove anything.

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Attorney Howard Bass who challenged the ordinance on behalf of a Minneapolis motorist said the decision sends two messages to Minnesota cities.

"First under under current state law cameras can't be used to enforce traffic laws and secondly, in enforcing traffic laws, cities must do so in a way that doesn't violate due process," he said.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak says he's not giving up on the PhotoCop program. Rybak says while he's disappointed in the ruling, he's undeterred by the decision.

"I'm not giving up on this effort and nor should citizens give up on helping us because when we had this program in place we had a 31 percent decrease in crashes at intersections. And all over the metropolitan area we're seeing people paying less attention to stop lights, certainly stop signs, and we have to get control of the streets again," Rybak said.

The court also said the ordinance conflicted with a statute that requires uniform traffic rules statewide. The court, however, was cognizant of public safety. The court said its decision does not minimize the state's public policy considerations.

Numerous accidents occur as a result of red-light violations and they often lead to serious injuries, death, property damage and high insurance costs. But the court said the issue was for the Legislature.

At the Capitol, PhotoCop legislation this session has stalled. It was defeated in a House committee about two weeks ago, but Mayor Rybak says he'll push for new legislation next session. The Mayor's office did not immediately know whether those ticketed under PhotoCop, like Will Shapira, will get a refund.