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8/11/2009California Judge Declares Red Light Camera Program Illegal and Void
Superior Court judge declares red light camera tickets issued in Santa Ana, California to be illegal and void.
A California judge last week began throwing out red light camera citations issued in Santa Ana. Orange County Superior Court Commissioner Kenneth Schwartz declared the city's program void because it had ignored several provisions of state law. Local attorneys Mark D. Sutherland and R. Allen Baylis had challenged the city for its failure to provide the required thirty-day warning period before beginning the program and its use of a prohibited per-ticket "cost neutral" compensation scheme.
"While the court generally agrees with these contentions, it is compelled to declare -- on its own motion -- that the contract between Santa Ana and Redflex is contrary to terms of a law designed for the protection of the public, which prescribes a penalty for violation, is illegal and void, and that no action may be brought to enforce it," Schwartz ruled.
The first problem the judge found was that California law requires the city to make an announcement "at least thirty days prior to the commencement of the enforcement program." A press conference announcing the cameras was held only twenty-four days prior to the program's commencement on June 19, 2003. Instead of providing notice each time the city added an intersection, Santa Ana only made the single announcement with the intention of moving cameras to new intersections within the city limits whenever a particular location failed to generate sufficient revenue.
Schwartz saw the error in the announcement timing as more than a technicality, citing the false assertion of Police Chief Paul Walters that motorists would be given 4.4 seconds of yellow time at enforced intersections. Records show that seventeen of the city's eighteen camera intersections had yellow times of 4.0 seconds or less. The vast majority of red light tickets in the city were mailed to vehicle accused of entering an intersection less than half-a-second after the light had turned red.
"A member of the public who did have notice of potential enforcement from the original public announcement would find himself with almost half-a-second less time to make it through the yellow light," Schwartz wrote. "At 40 MPH, the speed limit at the intersection of all but one of today's cases set for trial, this would be over 23 feet or about one-and-a-half car lengths of yellow light time which turns red, instead... None of these ten cases would have been before the court if the yellow light duration was of the time stated at the only public announcement on the subject."
The city attorney's office insisted that it had complied with the public announcement requirement by holding a meeting on May 19 -- exactly thirty days before the commencement of ticketing.
"This was a public meeting of a city council committee, and thus qualified as a legitimate public announcement of the system," City Attorney Joseph W. Fletcher wrote in an August 5 legal brief.
According to the minutes of the May 19, 2003 committee meeting in question, members discussed the possibility of running "public service announcements" regarding the camera program. No such announcements were ever made. Traffic attorney Baylis believes that the city's attitude may have provoked the court.
"It really comes down to this: the city of Santa Ana should have taken the extra steps to comply with the law, instead of skirting the edge and trying to get away with the minimum" Baylis told TheNewspaper.
Santa Ana's plan to move cameras about at will violated a provision of state law requiring a flat-rate of compensation for the private company the operates the camera program.
"The contract contemplates moving a red light camera which is no longer generating sufficient revenue to another signalized intersection -- again, without any warning -- and a concomitant opportunity to renegotiate the amount of compensation required," Schwartz wrote. "Giving the words of Vehicle Code 21455.5(g) their usual and ordinary meaning, the contract fails because it potentially violates both the number of citation and percentage of revenue proscriptions of the section."
The court followed the reasoning of a number of recent Superior Court, Appellate Division rulings striking down red light camera programs. In January, a judge struck down Santa Ana's failure to provide a warning period at each intersection that used a camera (view ruling). In February, the appellate division found Sacramento County's camera program had produced unreliable evidence (view ruling). In December, the appellate division ruled "cost neutral" contracts in Fullerton were illegal (view ruling).
"The city of Santa Ana has avoided the problem for some time," Sutherland told TheNewspaper. "If the state is going to make the rules (Santa Ana) must abide by those rules. The interesting question for the city is what are they going to do?"
Rather than merely dismissing the case, Schwartz found the motorists involved not guilty. The constitutional protection against double jeopardy prohibits the city from appealing the verdict. It is assumed that the court will continue throwing out every photo ticket filed until the city complies with the law. Baylis is now looking to file challenges on behalf of any motorist who has received and paid a ticket in the past.
"As a matter of public policy, I think the public is not in favor of this use of technology," Baylis said. "I think at some point people are going to become tired of the government intrusion in their lives."
A copy of the court's decision is available in a 750k PDF file at the source link below. The motorists who hired Baylis and Sutherland requested anonymity.
Source: California v. Murray (Orange County, California Superior Court, 8/11/2009)
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