Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Red light cameras -- scams or safety devices?

I just had my day in court after getting a red light camera ticket. Here's the sort-of brief I handed the judge, along with copies of several judgments justifying my position:

Re: Case No. XXXXXX  in Superior Court of San Mateo, Southern Branch

People of the State of California vs. Ehkzu


I plead not guilty. I decline to testify. Acting in pro per, however, this is my case:

The city's case against me is based entirely on evidence obtained illegally, because the city's contract with Redflex violates state law by giving Redflex financial incentive to issue more tickets; and while the state law doesn't specify the remedy to this, the U.S. Supreme Court has supported the "Fruit of the Poisonous Tree" principle on several occasions as a fundamental feature of American jurisprudence, obviating the necessity of invoking it explicitly in every law.

While no published appellate ruling currently supports this interpretation of state law vis-à-vis the Redflex contract, several unpublished rulings (appellate and otherwise) support this interpretation and the logic of those rulings could certainly be used by the commissioner in this case. Also, several adverse appellate rulings either do not apply or contravene the "Fruit of the Poisonous Tree" principle, thus running a considerable likelihood of being overturned on appeal. 


California vs. Nagai (case # LA007022PE), Superior Court, Orange County, January 23, 2007 [involving a comparable Redflex contract]:

"In interpreting other statutory language of Vehicle Code Section 21455.5, it has been held that the statute must be construed to ascertain and give effect to the Legislature's intent; and to give the words of the statute their usual and ordinary meaning….Notwithstanding any facts to the contrary, this is a revenue driven pricing system, in direct violation of Vehicle Code section 21455.5(g)(1).

            "Vehicle Code Section 21455.5 is to be strictly construed. The statutory requirements are intended to provide protection to the motorist public, and a conviction cannot result from a violation of its statutory provisions. Accordingly, the defendant in case number LA007022PE must be found not guilty." 

California vs. Franco (case # 30-2008-93057), Appellate Division, Superior Court of California, County of Orange, November 21, 2008:

"Appellant contends evidence from the City of Fullerton's Automated Enforcement System was inadmissible because the City's contract with the camera operator contains a provision tying payment to the operator to revenue generated by the system. This court agrees, and the judgment is reversed…The contract at issue provides for a payment of a flat monthly fee, but also provides that service fees can be negotiated 'down or up, but not to exceed' the monthly rate…NTS has an incentive to ensure sufficient revenue are generated to cover the monthly fee…Because the City's contract with NTZS violated Vehicle Code section 21455.5(g), the trial court erred in admitting evidence from the automated enforcement system." 

Two contrary appellant decisions are often cited in finding against defendants in comparable cases. These are California vs. Brandel (case # CR.A.4548 [Trial Court: 014554 SAGB]), June 3, 2008; and California vs. McDonald (case # BR 04561, No. LC04465), February 23, 2009. 

Neither of these judgments find that the red light camera contracts of the cities involved were legal. They sidestep that issue. Instead, both judgments claim that the legality of the contracts is irrelevant to the cases being considered. 

Such findings flout the "Fruit of the Poisonous Tree" principle first confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Nardone v. United States, 308 U.S. 338, 60 S. Ct. 266, 84 L. Ed. 307 (1939), and then further in Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 83 S. Ct. 407, 9 L. Ed. 2d 441 (1963). 

The "Fruit of the Poisonous" tree doctrine holds that evidence discovered through illegal search or other unconstitutional means may not be introduced by a prosecutor. An illegal contract between a city and a red light camera operator that incentivizes the private, for-profit operator to write more tickets is just such a poison tree. 

Both of these appellate judgments, by excusing governments' illegal conduct, foster disrespect for the law, which has far-reaching effects. I have traveled in countries where the law is for sale and no one in their right mind would go to the police for help unless they belonged to the ruling elite. I don't want that to happen here. Yet red light camera operations are starting to be seen as a sophisticated update of the good old speed trap, due in part to illegal contracts like Menlo Park's one with Redflex systems, compounded by some judicial authorities failing to hold cities accountable for such behavior. In a just system the perpetrator must not be allowed to retain the profits of his illegal conduct. Allowing cities to retain the monies collected from such modern-day "speed traps" violates this principle. 

In the case at hand, the city of Menlo Park was warned prior to signing the contract that its financial provisions contravened state law. It went ahead and signed that contract anyway. So it cannot plead ignorance. 

And in putting a red light camera on a left turn such as the one at Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road, the city perpetrates the image of doing this not for safety but for revenue enhancement. 

Studies conducted by impartial institutions (as opposed to those by the insurance industry, which has a powerful financial incentive involved) show that nearly all accidents caused by red light runners are caused by drivers barreling straight through an intersection—not turning. In fact, installing red light cameras on left turns increases rear end crashes substantially while doing little or nothing to reduce other crashes, since those are caused by drivers going straight through the intersection. 

[I have brought copies of legitimate studies substantiating my assertions, which I’d be glad to provide the court; and I could show in detail why the insurance and red light camera studies are bogus. I have a BA in Sociology from UCLA and am trained in assessing such studies.] 

Moreover, when red light cameras are installed on turns, they're almost always coupled with timing the yellow lights to the state minimum of 3.0 seconds, as is the case for the left turn at Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road. Impartial studies have also proven that increasing the yellow light timing by up to a second or so (depending on the specifics of the intersection) greatly reduces red light infractions, and claims by the insurance industry and the red light camera industry that drivers soon habituate have proven to be wildly exaggerated. Red light running goes up a little over time, but the number of infractions is still several hundred percent lower than when the light timing is set to the shortest time the city can get away with.

 There is no safety justification for using red light cameras on turns coupled with as-short-as-legally-possible yellow light timing. The only justification is revenue. And using law enforcement as a profit center is exactly what the moral hazard of incentivized red light camera contracts leads to.

Moreover, nearly half the monies collected from such red light camera traps goes out of state, and much of that out of country (since Redflex is an Australian company0. City government profits immediately, but that money comes out of citizens' discretionary income, and will not be spent on local businesses. This in turn decreases taxes paid to city government.

 Red light cameras used to improve safety, applied to drivers going straight through intersections, coupled with reasonable yellow light timing—not "what can I get away with" timing—is probably a good thing, as long as the operation is conducted above reproach—starting with using legal contracts. 

But using red light cameras primarily for revenue is immoral, corrupting, and ultimately self-defeating. There's a reason why California bans speed traps. I predict that eventually we'll get state Supreme Court rulings that will prove extremely costly for the 20 cities using illegal contracts—and we'll get state laws that force cities to use red light cameras for safety enhancement instead of as a hidden tax on motorists. 

Two additional points: researchers in Florida found that red light cameras coupled with short yellow light timing were particularly difficult for elderly drivers, causing an inordinate amount of infractions and accidents instead of improving safety. Their reflexes aren't up to the demands placed on them by short yellow lights. 

And I have found that as a reasonably fit bicyclist I often find myself facing oncoming traffic that has a green light while I'm still crossing an intersection, even when I start across promptly when the light turns green. Stoplight timings are based on the reflexes and mobility of a 30 year old driver in a late-model car. Bicyclists and the elderly are on their own. 

Instead of churning innumerable citizens through a red light camera operation for money, Menlo Park should be focusing on improving road safety and getting its revenue through legitimate means. 


smg said...

I am on the edge of my seat wondering what happened to your red light ticket? Can you tell me or point to the blog where you may have done so already. I was very impressed with your court presentation!

Ehkzu said...

Of course my argument was summarily dismissed. Here's the reality:

You can get off if you can show that the person in the photo isn't for sure you.

You can not get off if you letting you off requires paying back all the fines collected by that city since it started using red light cameras.

That's what would have had to have happened in my case, since I challenged the legality of the camera contract, not the particularities of my ticket.

The person who sees your case isn't going to be a judge. It's a "traffic commissioner"--an employee of the city.

Now someone in San Mateo, a few miles north of me, just got his case dismissed on the exact grounds I used. But this only happened because he hired a lawyer and took it to an appeals court with a real judge.

But the judge refused to publish the decision, so it can't be used as a precedent.

There's a huge scandal brewing about the huge number of unpublished decisions being made in all sorts of cases in California courts.

So I'm waiting for someone willing to take a contract-challenging case to appeal and getting a published opinion that will force all Calfornia cities with illegal contracts (there are dozens of them) to disgorge their ill-gotten gains.

But as you can imagine that would represent a whole lotta money, and the cities are lobbying the judiciary system and the state legislature long and hard to try to keep this from happening.

BTW I plan to try to get people to refer to the devices as "yellow light cameras" because that's what they're actually based on. Calling them "red light cameras" is part of the propaganda being promulgated to justify this particular taxpayer ripoff.

the petit gourmand said...

sorry i'm a bit confused - so did you get off (as in your case was dismissed and you got your bail back and no point on your record) or did you have to pay up and either go to traffic school or take the point?

i just got the same ticket!! so thank you for any advice.

Ehkzu said...

I took the point. As I said in my comment to smg (Sarah Michelle Gellar?), no traffic commissioner will risk his or her sweet gig with a dismissal that would force the city to refund hundres of fines.

They'll only find you not guilty if the photo doesn't clearly show your face, basically.

Otherwise the only way to win is to appeal up to the next level--which won't work unless you hire a lawyer.

If you want to review lots and lots of information about red light camera scams, here's a huge website devoted to the topic:


It's centered on California drivers, but much/most is applicable to other states.

What we really need is a class action lawsuit against cities that using this modern version of the speed trap.