CITY OF SPRINGFIELD v. BELT

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Supreme Court of Missouri,En Banc.

CITY OF SPRINGFIELD, Missouri, Respondent, v. Adolph BELT, Jr., Appellant.

No. SC 90324.

    Decided: March 02, 2010

Jason T. Umbarger, Springfield, for appellant. Johnnie J. Burgess, Assistant City Attorney, for respondent.

This is a $100 case. But sometimes, it's not the money-it's the principle. When Adolph Belt, Jr., a 30-year veteran of the Missouri State Highway Patrol and a former Kansas City police officer, received a notice that his car had been photographed running a red light in Springfield, he did not take the matter lightly. Undeniably a traffic expert, Belt timed the yellow caution light at the intersection and found that it was rather quick. He also concluded that the stoplight and the cameras needed to be synchronized.

The Springfield city code provides that hearings for violations of this ordinance are to be heard in an administrative proceeding. In Belt's proceeding, the hearing examiner denied Belt's challenge to his citation and found him liable for the prescribed $100 penalty. Belt then appealed, requesting a trial de novo before the circuit court. The circuit court dismissed the request for a trial de novo, finding it had no jurisdiction to hear the appeal. Belt now appeals the circuit court's dismissal, arguing he is entitled to a trial de novo for a municipal ordinance violation.

Violations of municipal ordinances such as this one cannot be determined administratively but must be heard in a division of the circuit court. Section 479.010, RSMo Supp.2009.1 The administrative proceeding is void, and Belt's $100 penalty is vacated.

Facts and Procedural History

The city of Springfield notified Belt in July 2008 that on April 10, 2008, a motor vehicle registered in his name had been photographed running a red light by a red light traffic camera. In the “Citation Traffic Signal Violation” issued to Belt, the city alleged that the “[r]ecord images” of his car were “evidence of a violation of Springfield City Code 106-1612 ․” The citation provided that Belt either could pay the $100 fine or contest the citation. To contest the citation, Belt was required “to request a court date” and that if he chose to “appear in court, the minimum amount [he could] be charged is a $100.00 penalty.” (Emphasis added.)

Following Belt's request for a court date, he received a “Notice of Contested Hearing on Photo Redlight Violation,” which stated that he would have a contested hearing on August 1, 2008, at the “Springfield Municipal Court.” If he wished to receive a continuance, the application to do so would have to be made directly to the court. The notice further informed Belt that “Article X of the Land Development Code” and “Chapter 536 of Missouri Revised Statutes” provided the relevant law governing administrative hearings. The notice also stated that if he failed to appear and contest the case, “the Hearing Officer [would] likely enter a judgment against [him]” and that “the City [would] be represented by the Office of the Municipal Prosecutor.”

At his hearing,3 Belt contended that the yellow light was displayed for fewer than 4.5 seconds and that “the [stop]light and the cameras need[ed] to be synchronized.” He filed an affidavit stating that he had experience and knowledge of traffic accidents from working five years for the Kansas City police department and 30 years as a Missouri State Highway Patrol officer. He also stated that he personally had observed the traffic light's cycle at the intersection where the pictures had been taken of him and, at the time that they had been taken, his stopwatch indicated that the yellow caution-light cycle was 3.5 to 3.8 seconds on one date and 3.5 to 3.38[sic] seconds on three other dates.4

Belt's hearing was presided over by a person who also holds the position of Springfield municipal judge, Todd M. Thornhill. However, Thornhill signed the “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law” as “Hearing Examiner.” Thornhill found that the city had shown “by a preponderance of the evidence that the vehicle was being operated in violation of the red light ordinance and that [Belt] is the owner of the vehicle” under section 106-161(d)(1). He further found no evidence supported Belt's assertion that the yellow light was displayed for fewer than 4.5 seconds. He therefore imposed a $100 penalty against Belt.

Belt then filed an “Application for Trial de Novo” requesting a de novo appeal of Thornhill's determination.5 Thereafter, the city filed multiple motions to dismiss in which the city questioned the circuit court's subject matter jurisdiction to grant a trial de novo in a case in which there had been an administrative decision issued by a hearing examiner as opposed to a criminal conviction by a municipal court division.6 The circuit court sustained the city's motion to dismiss with prejudice, entering a “Judgment of Dismissal” in which it found that it “lack[ed] jurisdiction to hear a Request for Trial de Novo in this matter.” After opinion in the court of appeals, this Court granted transfer. Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 10.

Analysis

Belt argues that because he was charged with a municipal ordinance violation for which a fine was assessed and was “tried” before a person who is a municipal judge, he is entitled to a trial de novo under section 479.200, RSMo 2000.7 The city responds that because it instituted an administrative action against Belt under the Missouri Administrative Procedure Act, all of chapter 479, including section 479.200, is inapplicable to Belt's case.

Section 479.010 provides that “[v]iolations of municipal ordinances shall be heard and determined only before divisions of the circuit court as hereinafter provided in this chapter.” Under chapter 479, a city with a population of less than 400,000, such as the city of Springfield, may elect where the violations of its municipal ordinances may be heard and determined. However, section 479.040 outlines the choices from which the city may choose: The city may choose to have the violations heard and determined by an associate circuit judge of the circuit in which it is located, by a municipal judge or at a county municipal court if one is created in the county where the city is situated. No provision is made for a city such as Springfield to have an administrative tribunal decide ordinance violations of this nature.8

The only reference in chapter 479 providing for administrative adjudication of municipal code violations is contained in section 479.011. This section provides that “[a]ny city not within a county or any home rule city with more than four hundred thousand inhabitants and located in more than one county may establish ․ an administrative system for adjudicating parking and other civil, nonmoving municipal code violations.” At present, this would allow only the cities of Kansas City and St. Louis to create such an administrative system. Further, the administrative system at issue here is created for a violation of a red light ordinance, which typically is considered a moving violation. See Barbara C. Salken, The General Warrant of the Twentieth Century? A Fourth Amendment Solution to Unchecked Discretion to Arrest for Traffic Offenses, 62 Temp. L. Rev.. 221, 270 (1989).

In this case, the city of Springfield has created an administrative system to prosecute violations of Springfield city code section 106-161, a municipal ordinance. If the owner of the vehicle that ran the red light chooses to have a “court date,” the proceeding is overseen by a hearing examiner, not a municipal judge.9 This violates the statutory requirement that “violations of municipal ordinances be heard and determined only before divisions of the circuit court.”10 Section 479.010. The only administrative procedure that the legislature has set up for violations of municipal ordinances such as this one is for parking and other nonmoving violations; even then, this administrative procedure is allowed only in the cities of Kansas City and St. Louis.

Conclusion

The hearing examiner had no authority to penalize Belt for his car's violation of the red light ordinance. The part of Springfield city code section 106-161 that provides for an administrative proceeding for violations of the section is inconsistent with Missouri's statutes. The administrative proceeding that occurred in this case is void. See Yellow Freight Systems, Inc., 791 S.W.2d at 387 (finding that because “the Mayor's Commission had no authority to determine that the respondent had violated the ordinance, ․ that determination is void”).

The hearing examiner's decision penalizing Belt $100.00 for violating city code section 106-161 is vacated.11

MICHAEL A. WOLFF, Judge.

All concur.

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