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The Two Men Who Ended Red Light Camera Tickets

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 11, 2023 3:03 am

The Two Men Who Ended Red Light Camera Tickets

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 11, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Hugh Eastwood and Bevis Schock are civil rights lawyers in St. Louis. They filed suit in three separate cases. All three cases were heard by the Missouri Supreme Court in one mammoth morning argument. Here they are to tell their story. 

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And we continue with our American stories. Red light camera tickets came into being during the early 2000s. The public was outraged and irritated because the cameras eliminated the human element.

There are a bunch more reasons why all of us as taxpayers were annoyed and irritated by the red light cameras. New Eastwood and Bevis Shock decided to do something about it. They're civil rights lawyers in St. Louis and they filed three separate cases, all three of which were heard by the Missouri Supreme Court in one big morning argument.

Here's Bevis Shock and New Eastwood to tell their story. I got into civil rights law 25 years ago, early in my practice. I ended up working on a civil rights case on a referral. I felt great about it.

I won my first civil rights trial and I decided that I would vastly focus on that in my practice, which I have done. So the red light camera tickets cranked up. And when they first started, it was just a little small program. And the alderman, I don't think when they passed it, they had any idea what it would turn into. But in St. Louis, they were issuing these tickets left and right.

And I thought that this idea of giving people tickets for running through a red light by a tenth of a second, which a cop would have just ignored, shortening the yellows, which they were doing to increase the revenue. Early morning, people coming home from coffee or going to coffee, no right on red. There's nobody within two miles.

The intersection is completely unattended. So the person goes ahead and goes right on red, even though it's a no right on red. And here comes a red light camera ticket. No officer would bother with anybody. Or if the officer did bother, might pull the person over and say, hey, you know, you're not supposed to do that. I'm not going to give you a ticket.

There's nobody around. It took the human judgment part out of it, which I didn't like. And then what happened was a radio personality named Charlie Brennan got one of these tickets. And he called me during a break in the show and briefly explained and I said, I will do it on the condition that we do the entire representation on the air.

And he said, OK, I stayed pulled over. We did the first interview right there. And every single interview I did with Charlie started with the same question. Charlie, you have a right to a confidential relationship with your attorney. Would you like to waive that today? Because there are hundreds of thousands of people listening.

This is the number one station in St. Louis, the Mighty Mox, KMOX, the blowtorch of the Midwest. And he said, yes, I would be this. I'd like to give up my right to confidentiality. And then we discussed right there, like he was a brand new client, and I agreed to represent him in the case because I didn't like the way it smelled. At the end of the day, it was my nose that told me this is wrong and it's bad. And then we ended up with three or four clients and we ended up with three cases at the Supreme Court of Missouri.

And we won them all after about four years. I'd say that it struck me as fundamentally unfair. And that was a sentiment I noticed a lot of people having when we would go on the radio with our client, who was a radio host, the switchboard would light up when this topic came up. And I think it just struck a chord that this was wrong, it was unfair, and it defended a lot of our fundamental notions of how the relationship between the community and the police should be, and also how our court system should work. And remember, most people only interact with the court system in municipal court on a traffic ticket. I mean, most people aren't getting arrested for serious crimes, which is a good thing. Most people aren't being hauled into court and being sued on some complicated theory, which again is a good thing. So most people don't have much litigation in their life, and if they have a negative interaction with the government, it's going to be for something pretty minor.

They're going to get a ticket and have to go to municipal court. So it's really important for the relationship between the government and the community for that process to be seen as fair, and also for it to be seen as pursuing justice, rather than for-profit motive. And so there's a phrase, which is not mine, which is taxation by citation, and that was what was going on here. And we knew that this was a revenue grab because one of the arguments the cities had in these cases is that we need this money.

And that's what struck me as unfair. This wasn't about a legitimate exercise of the police power to promote traffic safety. In fact, if it was about traffic safety, they would care about who the driver was, after all.

Here, they didn't care. We're just going to go after the owner. One of the things in the red light camera cases was that people who were not driving were getting tickets for running a red light. It was that the owner would get the ticket, the owner of the car, because it was done by license plate, and then who owned that car. That violates some basic principles of how our criminal law works. Many of the criminal rights, but not all of them, are in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. Your right to remain silent, right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against you, the right to be confronted with the witnesses against you. These are all in those amendments. But interestingly, the right to be presumed innocent is not in those amendments. But it's deeply ingrained in our case law and our system of jurisprudence from the common law of England.

We felt that one of the effects of these cases was to help make those rights further enshrined in the law. We had cases from different cities in our region. One of the cases we were in a defensive posture, right, defending someone who owned a car from a red light ticket or from, in Charlie Brennan's case, a speeding ticket detected with a camera.

The other case, we were offensive. We were seeking to get an injunction to shut down the City of St. Louis camera program, and everyone showed up, including the private camera company. They had their own lawyers, very good lawyers, lawyers that I respect, very talented, skillful, well-paid lawyers. The debt collectors who were trying to chase people down for these tickets, they had their own lawyers. Everyone was there. There were a lot of lawyers in the courtroom. But yes, this was not about money for us.

This was not a class action. This was really shutting down a system, and we were able to do that. I will say in candor that we were a little nervous because after this wonderful, unprecedented experience of having three Missouri Supreme Court opinions issue in one day, all in your favor, we thought, I mean, that's about as good as it gets. We had some nerves because we read a kind of narrow path for these cities to come back and have another bite at the apple with these red light camera programs.

So we kind of thought it might be like whack-a-mole. But so far in the St. Louis region, that has not been the case. Let me add that I think we knew when we were going through those several years that if we won, it would help our business, help our business more than all the advertising in the world. In fact, being on The Charlie Brennan Show, this radio show that has a huge following, you really can't pay for advertising like that.

No, you can't pay for publicity like that or advertising like that. When we come back, more of this not merely amusing piece, because it's making us all smile listening to it, but it gets you a bit angry too. And this is where our great legal system comes into play and great lawyers like you, Eastwood and Beavis Shock, their stories continue. The red light traffic caper here on Our American Stories. And we continue with Our American Stories and the story of the two men who ended red light traffic cameras in their state and took it to the state's highest court. Their argument about why these red light traffic tickets were against the law and an abuse of power.

Let's return to Beavis Shock and New Eastwood for more of their story. One good, favorable article in the paper about a news story about a win does more than all the buses and all the billboards in the world, because it helps not only get one's name in the public eye so people call for help. But when one walks into a judge's courtroom and the judge knows, hey, this guy got me out of my red light camera ticket. That helps. And it doesn't mean the judge isn't going to follow the law and rule as he or she sees fit. But it does mean that our papers will be read with care. So we we got something out of it. And to this day, people walk up to me on the street and say, aren't you Beavis Shock? Didn't you do that red light camera thing? Yes.

Thank you so much. That's such a good thing you did for this community. That's a big deal. And the problem with the whole system, of course, is that usually the fines were around 100 bucks, sometimes a little more.

And the problem is it's just not worth it for most people to fight to take time off from their jobs or their lives. Over one hundred dollars. That can be a lot of money to some people, but it's not enough money to mount a serious legal defense. And so there was this very clever thing that the red light camera companies, which were for profit companies, were doing, which was pitching these very cynical strategies to municipalities as a way to raise money. And we knew these companies were corrupt because one of the companies called Red Flex had executives go to prison. They also had officials in Chicago and other places get investigated by the federal DOJ and go to prison. So there was something that was really offensive about this.

The other thing is it was really a I guess what you could call a cross ideological sense of outrage. Most people driving around living their lives thought that this was unfair and that was wrong. And we know from policing that when policing works, it's because the police have trust with the community. And that usually involves old fashioned things like going out and being a regular beat cop in the community.

It could be running traffic. I suspect people don't like getting speeding tickets or traffic tickets. But at the same time, if this person is actually in the community and is someone who is building trust with the community, that's policing that works. And so there really wasn't any evidence that red light cameras were having much of a traffic safety function. A lot or the only evidence was city officials saying, you know what?

Yep. In our view, they promote traffic safety, which we just thought was cynical. In one of these cases, we actually went on to have a civil trial against the city. And when the jury saw the revenue that the city was making, the spike in revenue in association with, in fact, issuing warrants, they found in favor of our client and gave her one hundred thousand dollars. So I guess the final thing, it was an opportunity to go all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. And at the time, as a newer lawyer, this was a great case to work on. And I also knew that if I really just fouled this whole thing up and really did a terrible job for my client, which was not my goal, that at least the worst case, my client would only be out one hundred dollars.

So that was about the limit of my malpractice exposure as a young lawyer. I would add that it was perverse that people who were trying to be good citizens suffered more than scofflaws. And the reason for that was that if people didn't pay, all they got were a few letters saying pay. Nothing happened to them. There was no warrant for their arrest. There was no, nothing on the driver's license.

Nothing happened. So most citizens really believe in the rule of law. We all understand once that disappears, a lot of our liberties will disappear. And good citizens therefore paid the hundred dollars and the bad citizens didn't and nothing happened to them. So bad conduct was rewarded. And the working class person with good intentions who understands the importance of the rule of law is dramatically affected. And the scofflaw schmuck neighbor gets the ticket and doesn't care. And that contributes to a decay in our community's ability to live together in a civil manner.

And that was a part of it that really bothered me. I would also say, and we got into this in our case involving the city of St. Peter's, this excerpt of St. Louis, the cynicism, I think, of the city's arguments in favor for these programs was detected by the jury and the city's arguments were rejected. So, for example, the city said, well, this is how we pay for seniors to have transportation. This idea being that if somehow you shut down this red light camera program, you're going to leave, you know, impoverished grandmothers on the side of the road, unable to travel. That was just baloney.

Guess what? Those programs existed before red light cameras and they exist today. I suppose there's political support for them and it provides a service to members of the community and that's a legitimate government function.

But the point is, is don't act like we're attacking grandmothers. The cynicism of the arguments in favor of these programs, I think, is what helped doom them. There really was not political support for these. It was taxation by citation, which is an improper use of the police power. We should not be renting tickets to people or issuing fines to generate revenue. And so what that judgment does is force not just St. Louis County, but cities and counties throughout the state of Missouri, and perhaps nationally because it's applying the First Amendment. First Amendment doesn't change when you cross a state line. What it does is force them to go through their books, examine their laws and rewrite that. And I know that Bevis knows firsthand from a conversation he had with a lawyer who practices on the government side. That's exactly what they're doing.

And that's a good thing. I mean, the idea that you'd ever mix for-profit business and criminal law enforcement or traffic enforcement is nuts, right? Because the incentives are all perverse. An interesting question is, what will happen in other states? Does this radio broadcast affect any decisions by lawyers to do this, attack these systems? One of the things that might happen is people might listen to this and some lawyer, and it needs to be a lawyer with some experience, an appellate work, who's argued in the Supreme Court of the state before, who's ready to go. It's got to be somebody, and the big law firms will never do it, right? Because they are part of the establishment. They love that money coming into the government because they've got government contracts to write up the law and bond deals for municipal buildings and things.

So it takes a certain level of craziness to want to do something like this. When we think about America, John Maynard Keynes said we're all dead in the long run. Well, my kids aren't going to be dead, and their kids aren't going to be dead, and their kids' kids aren't going to be dead. They're going to be alive.

And what a raw deal would we give to our descendants if we let America go, if we let the delicate balances of the Constitution and the principles of the Declaration be set aside because they're not convenient right now, or because people fail to recognize how well they work and what they mean. And I understand that the war never ends, but to be able to work on a case like the red light camera cases is an opportunity to live in to those beliefs that we have a duty to our descendants who we don't know yet, and both my own gene pool, my own kids and their kids, but everybody else's kids too. George Washington didn't have any kids.

That didn't matter to him. It doesn't matter whether you do or not. We're part of a larger community here. And great job on that piece by Greg Hengler, and a special thanks to you, Eastwood, and to Beavis Shock.

What a great story. Those two guys are both civil rights lawyers in St. Louis. And look, they're right. I mean, in the end, the country is formed because of those general warrants and writs of assistance that allowed British troops to just come in and search away in American homes. It was literally the founding reason and the impetus for the Declaration and for everything else that happened in the Constitution. And this was, as the lawyer said, taxation by citation. Government is here to serve us. We're not here to serve the government. Great work by both you, Eastwood, and Beavis Shock for all the lawyer jokes that you've heard. This is a nation of laws, and when you need one, you want a good lawyer to defend your civil rights. A great story about the rule of law, and so much more here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-11 04:45:48 / 2023-08-11 04:53:02 / 7

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