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Opinion, California, Santa Monica

Red Light Camera Fate Now Uncertain In California

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

Posted Jul. 20, 2014, 8:56 am

Tom Elias / Mirror Columnist

There are few worse feelings for a driver than receiving a letter purporting to show that person in the act of running a red light.

But not many legal items are less enforceable or reliable, despite what the California Supreme Court said in an early summer ruling which held red light camera photos and videos have “a presumption of authenticity.”

There’s a reason traffic cops routinely demand that drivers sign the bottom of every ticket they write: That signature constitutes a promise either to pay a fine or appear in court on a specified date. Drivers make no such promise on red light tickets, which normally carry fines of about $480.

That was one reason the city of Los Angeles abandoned red light cameras in 2012. The decision came about a year after that city’s police chief, Charlie Beck, candidly admitted that no actions were being taken against drivers who simply ignored red light camera violation notices. Because they’re not routinely sent as certified or registered mail (too costly), prosecutors cannot prove drivers are lying if they say they never got the mailed tickets.

This in effect creates two classes of citizens, in apparent violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment: drivers who dutifully pay up the almost $500 fines on demand and scofflaws who don’t, and pay nothing. There could hardly be more unequal treatment.

There’s also the issue of red light camera reliability. The nub of the case against cited drivers is usually a videotape which drivers can often see via an Internet link provided in the mailed violation notice.

Since the vast bulk of red light camera tickets involve drivers making rolling stops rather than full stops before right turns, the accuracy of videos is critical. A still photo may place a driver in the middle of a turn during a red light, but doesn’t establish that he or she didn’t stop before proceeding with the turn.

If the video camera doesn't run precisely at life-speed, but is a little faster, a vehicle can appear to be rolling through the stop, when it fact it made a full stop. In several cases where police have been cross-examined about how often their video cameras are calibrated, they testified they didn’t know, that it was up to the camera operator – usually Redflex Traffic Systems or American Traffic Solutions, both based in Arizona. But those firms are never available for cross-examination in court and the Supreme Court said they don't have to be.

So while drivers contesting red light camera tickets can usually question a cop, they can’t cross-examine the ultimate witness against them, an egregious violation of a basic constitutional right, no matter what the state justices may say.

But legal reasons are not the main cause for removal of red light cameras in Poway, Oakland and most other cities that have gotten rid of them: finances are. Because more than half the take from each $480 fine goes to the state or the operating companies, cities often don’t make much profit from the cameras, while annoying thousands of their citizens and visitors.

There’s disagreement in Oakland, for one example, over how much the city made last year from the 11 red light cameras it then had operating: The city says it netted just $280,000, while Redflex said the city share came to about $1.1 million. Oakland police are now auditing paid fines to see which figure is closest to correct.

In Poway, near San Diego, cameras at three intersections netted between $100,000 and $218,000 per year. Apparently, those smallish receipts were not enough for either city to put up with complaints about cameras violating privacy and the exorbitantly high fines for rolling stops before right turns.

All of which means red light cameras are at a different kind of crossroad: The state’s highest court says drivers don’t have the right to cross-examine camera operations because of the presumption of accuracy in their findings, while some of the state’s largest cities have shut their cameras down.

The upshot is that unfair as the cameras may be if they’re not properly calibrated, their fate in many places will hang not on traffic safety, but on the city budget dollars they produce, regardless of anyone's constitutional rights.

Post a comment


Jul. 20, 2014, 11:03:35 am

Wake up said...

We all know the constitution doesn't matter when there are money interests involved.

Jul. 20, 2014, 1:07:45 pm

Henry said...

There's a couple "first things to check" about California red light camera tickets, before taking ANY formal action such as contacting the court or the cops: 1. Is it a real ticket? California cities send out a lot of fake tickets (they haven't been filed with the court), to fool you into telling them who actually was driving the car. For more info about them, Google the term Snitch Ticket. 2. Real camera Tickets from cities or agencies in Los Angeles County can be ignored. That's because the LA County Superior Court decided, as a cost cutting measure, to cease reporting ignored camera tickets to the DMV. For more info Google red light camera ticket voluntary.

Jul. 20, 2014, 9:25:48 pm

Don Hiebert said...

The reason the Goldsmith is wrong legally is that the Justices failed to consider the financial incentive a camera company has to falsify or manufacture evidence, or to submit violation photos that actually don't demonstrate violations. The Court was correct to point out that photos from security cameras and ATM cameras are routinely used as evidence and are presumed accurate. This is because is that the camera operators in those situations have no financial incentive to falsify evidence. But, as has been said before, the people get the government they deserve.

Jul. 20, 2014, 9:27:06 pm

Don Hiebert said...

I meant the Goldsmith Decision.

Jul. 23, 2014, 12:24:58 am

Charlie said...

I want my money back!

Mar. 16, 2015, 10:07:26 am

Dan Hullum said...

I say we send a message back to the politicians and make these cities who have jumped on the bandwagon of stealing from people, knowing that this is unconstitutional, and make them reimburse the people who were forced to pay an ungodly amount, plus an additional fee for the hardship they have caused. by inforcing such an unjustly issue to begin with. Class action against California would send a message.

Jun. 6, 2016, 12:21:52 pm

rebecca wells said...

husband got a ticket on a green light when he turned left into a shopping center against a red arrow that he didn't see. The car is a leased car and a letter was sent to the leasing co. that informed us that if it was not payed that the leasing co. would then bill us. Are the red light or arrow in this case photos legal, or can we ignore the ticket and tell the leasing co. we are contesting the ticket. Not sure what to do.

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