May 20, 2008
A loophole for red light runners?

Is there a magic ticket for getting out of a camera-generated red light violation?

Attorney Randall Kallinen said drivers should appeal their tickets because the affidavits that back up the video images are "conclusory," instead of based on evidence. "Conclusory" is a legal term for an assertion that is not backed up by facts.

"Anyone challenging a red-light camera ticket under this should have their case dismissed," Kallinen said. "The affidavits are not sufficient to take your hard-earned money."

Kallinen used that argument to get two red-light tickets dismissed in early May for a client, Sara Smith.

Kallinen is a frequent critic of the cameras. I mention that because the story didn't.

The affidavits are sworn written statements by officers who have viewed the photos or videos on the red-light cameras. They can be used by the administrative judge in lieu of having the officer testify in person.

City Attorney Arturo Michel said the affidavits are fine and that they are backed up by the evidence in the digital images.

"The officer reviewed the tape, they saw it, and identified the vehicle's license plate number and observed the vehicle not stopping at a red light," Michel said. "I think that's enough."

Bonita Tolbert, assistant director of municipal court, said Smith's case was an isolated one.

"That was one argument that somebody presented in front of a judge, and he just happened to be successful at his," she said.


Smith's affidavits said "the motor vehicle ... was operated in violation of the traffic control signal that appears in the said images."

"It doesn't say what happened. It's an opinion," Kallinen said. The affidavit says nothing about which intersection, what the officer saw on the video, or who was driving, he explained.


Michel said Kallinen's argument probably would not work for other ticket-holders, since each appeals case is handled separately. He said the city would make sure a prosecutor was present at future red-light hearings to argue the city's case.

Maybe Kallinen is right about this. I'm not a lawyer, so I couldn't tell you if his argument has merit or if he just got lucky. To my layman's mind, it feels a little weak. For one thing, while the affidavit may not specify the intersection, the photo itself does. If the officer's statement about what he saw on the video is insufficient, that's easily addressed. As for the matter of who is driving, one of the prescribed defenses for a red light camera ticket is to claim you weren't the driver. If the ticket recipient doesn't make that claim, are we to assume that fact is not in dispute for the purposes of the case? (I'm asking because I don't know the legalities here.) This seems like an awfully rickety foundation, one that requires a lot to go your way to work.

But hey, what do I know? I may not be an attorney, but if other attorneys out there agree with Kallinen, we'll see the effect soon enough. If it is a sure thing, this won't be an isolated case for long.

One more thing:

Smith got three tickets on three different days for not coming to a full stop before turning right on a red light. All three tickets originated when she was turning right onto Westheimer from the West Loop South feeder road.

As it happens, the LA Times has a story about right-turn violations caught by red light cameras, which may foretell Houston's experience:

In Los Angeles, officials estimate that 80% of red light camera tickets go not to those running through intersections but to drivers making rolling right turns, a Times review has found. As London realized that day in court, her turn was illegal because she did not completely stop before turning.

One of the most powerful selling points for photo enforcement systems, which now monitor 175 intersections in Los Angeles County and hundreds more across the United States, has been the promise of reducing collisions caused by drivers barreling through red lights.

But it is the right-turn infraction -- a frequently misunderstood and less pressing safety concern -- that drives tickets and revenue in the nation's second-biggest city and at least half a dozen others across the county.

Some researchers and traffic engineers question the enforcement strategy.

"I've never . . . seen any studies that suggest red light cameras would be a good safety intervention to reduce right-turning accidents," said Mark Burkey, a researcher at North Carolina A&T State University who has studied photo enforcement collision patterns.

Some county cities with photo enforcement opt not to target right turns. Others limit camera use for those citations.

"We're kind of very leery about right turns. . . . They're not really unsafe per se," said Pasadena's senior traffic engineer, Norman Baculinao. Only one of that city's seven camera-equipped intersection approaches is set up to monitor right-turn violations, he said.

"This is intended to be a traffic safety program. People who make right turns generally are going at a low speed," and resulting accidents tend to be a "sideswipe at most," he said.


Officials in Los Angeles and other cities that cite large percentages of right-turn violators -- Covina, South Gate, Lancaster, Baldwin Park, Walnut and Montebello -- say the infractions increase hazards, particularly for pedestrians. "People have this misconception that it's OK to whip a right turn on a red light," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Jon White, with Lancaster's photo enforcement program.

Right turns at red lights have "always been associated with some danger," said transportation researcher Richard Retting of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Enforcing against drivers who don't stop at all has the potential to make intersections safer."

I don't know what it's like in El Lay, but I can't count the number of times I've had to hit the brakes to avoid some idiot who's zipped through a right on red without even an apparent pause to see if some other vehicle is about to proceed through the intersection as well. Speaking from that experience, I don't have any problem with enforcing this law with the cameras. If people have been in violation due to ignorance, that's just too bad.

Given that many people in Houston - Ms. Smith apparently excepted - have begun to adapt their driving habits at the camera-enabled intersections, it seems to me that in the long run, LA will see the number of these infractions drop as well. I suspect that at some point, Houston will be where LA is now. If the cameras make themselves obsolete some day, I'll consider that a good thing; if we need to have a debate before then about whether it's worth keeping them when they no longer pay for themselves, I'll be happy to engage that, too. In the meantime, the fewer people making rights on red as though they were the ones with the right of way, the better. LAT link via Kevin Drum.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 20, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
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