City leaders looking for green light on Stop on Redby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
The city of Minneapolis has a full basket of legislative items that it will bring to the Capitol this year. The list includes bonding requests for improved lighting along the city's parkways, more Local Government Aid and dedicated funding for transit. The city will also ask for legislative authority for the its photo enforcement program called Stop on Red. Last year a judge ruled that it violated state law, putting the program on hold. The city wants to change the law to make it legal.
Minneapolis — Minneapolis has failed in past attempts to get specific legislation that applies to photo enforcement.
But in 2004 the Minneapolis City Council approved the photocop system designed to catch red-light runners after it was assured by city attorneys that the program was still legal.
By the summer of 2005, 16 cameras in 12 city intersections began snapping photos of the license plates of cars running through red lights. Over eight and a half months nearly 24,000 citations for $142 each were mailed to the owners of the cars.
In 2006 a Hennepin County judge put a stop to Stop on Red by ruling in favor of a man who challenged his citation.
Assistant Minneapolis City Attorney Mary Ellen Heng explains the court's decision.
"That by creating this specific law that basically held an owner responsible, whether or not he or she was the driver, not only conflicted with the state statute, which only allows for liability on the driver, but it violated the statewide uniformity requirement because it would only be in Minneapolis that this could occur," says Heng.
That ruling was also upheld by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. And now the city will take its case to the state Supreme Court. Heng says the city will not wait for the court to rule. She says legislators could amend the current law on red light violations to extend liability to the owner of the vehicle. Or she says legislators could create an entirely new law that would apply specifically to photo enforcement.
But that may be easier said than done.
"They're kind of whistling in the wind at this point on this one. The courts have spoken. The Legislature, if it thought it was a good idea, would have changed this thing last year," says incoming House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R- Marshall. Seifert opposes the Stop on Red program because he says photo law enforcement is too much like Orwell's Big Brother.
Seifert says there's bipartisan opposition to the Stop on Red program at the Capitol. And he says some outstate legislators don't like the way the city continues to force the issue.
However, this session will be led by newly-elected DFL leaders who both represent Minneapolis -- Margaret Anderson Kelliher in the House and Larry Pogemiller in the Senate. And Seifert predicts they and other city legislators will exert pressure on Stop on Red opponents.
"There will be a lot of legislators who will vote against their own personal thought processes because of what the leadership thinks," says Seifert. "And that's unfortunate because I think that could very well happen this session."
"Well I think the new leadership in both the House and Ssenate is very practical," says House DFLer Jim Davnie of south Minneapolis. He says the Stop on Red program has shown that it's effective in reducing traffic accidents. And he says other cities are interested in starting similar programs, but are waiting to see what happens at the Capitol. Davnie says he doesn't think DFL leaders will make Stop on Red into a wedge issue.
"They recognize that the voters in the last election sent a really strong message," says Davnie. "That the Legislature needed to get work done and not fight and bicker."
City councilmembers are also optimistic that changes at the Legislature will bode well for Minneapolis. Councilmember Betsy Hodges says she looks forward to working with lawmakers who have a deeper understanding of the needs of cities like hers.
But at the same time she and her colleagues on the council have already begun to reach out to legislators who represent greater Minnesota.
"I think that signals a new tide," she says. "I think that people respond well to being appreciated. Just as we respond well to being appreciated, other folks have as well. And so I think that's one of the important things, building those relationships across the state."
If the city doesn't get specific language that applies to photo enforcement and if the Supreme Court rules against it, then Minneapolis could be looking at more costly legal action.
A class action suit made up of more than 10,000 people has been filed on the grounds that Stop on Red, as it stands, violates the federal Constitution. Under the Constitution, a person accused of a criminal penalty is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Opponents argue that Stop on Red assumes the guilt of the owner of the car.
The program also brought in more than $1 million to the city. And if the plaintiffs get their way, they'll get their money back.
- All Things Considered, 01/01/2007, 5:23 p.m.