Challenging the legality of photo cop ordinance 

Case Description

The ACLU of Minnesota filed a motion in early December 2005 seeking the court's opinion on the legality of the photo cop ordinance. This ordinance gave police departments the authority to install cameras at intersections that would automatically issue tickets to motorists who ran a red light. The motion was filed on behalf of an individual who received a citation because his vehicle was alleged to have violated the ordinance.

"This ordinance presumes that the owner of a vehicle that is photographed is guilty and then puts the burden on the owner to prove that he or she was not the driver," said ACLU-MN Executive Director, Chuck Samuelson. "It turns the notion of Due Process on its head," he said.

In its brief, ACLU of Minnnesota argued that Minnesota prosecutors have the burden of proof to show that an individual is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in petty misdemeanor prosecutions. The Minneapolis camera ordinance impermissibly relieved the prosecutor of the burden of proving that the owner was the driver of the vehicle photographed while going through a red light.

State law prohibits local traffic regulations from being in conflict with state law. The Minneapolis ordinance conflicted with state law because it shifted liability for traffic light violations from the driver to the owner. During the 2001 and 2003 legislative sessions, the Minnesota Legislature considered and rejected bills that would have allowed local governments to use automated cameras to enforce traffic regulations.

Event Timeline:

Spring 2006 - Agreeing with the ACLU of Minnesota, Hennepin County District Court Judge Mark Wernick invalidated the Minneapolis ordinance permitting use of cameras to catch traffic violations because the ordinance stood in violation of state law.

Summer 2006 - Attorneys for the City of Minneapolis asked the Minnesota Court of Appeals to overturn the district court decision invalidating the Minneapolis "Photo Cop" ordinance. The ordinance would have allowed for photographic enforcement of red light violations.

Fall 2006 - The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the District Court's ruling invalidating the Minneapolis "Photo Cop" ordinance. The City of Minneapolis appealed the Court of Appeals' decision.

December 2006 - The Minnesota Supreme Court granted the State of Minnesota's petition for review of the earlier decision of the Court of Appeals.

March 2007 - Howard Bass, volunteer attorney with the ACLU of Minnesota, argued our case against the City of Minneapolis at the Minnesota State Supreme Court.

April 2007 - The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the lower courts' rulings and found that the Minneapolis Photo Cop ordinance was in impermissible conflict with state law. The ordinance was in conflict with state law because it violated the requirement that Minnesota traffic regulations be uniform and it reduced the state's burden of proof in prosecuting red light violations.


Howard Bass, Bass and Peck, LLC


Minnesota Supreme Court