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.