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California: Opposition Mounts to Red Light Camera Bill
Red light camera industry seeks to protect $35 million snitch ticket program.

Joe Simitian
The opponents and proponents of red light cameras in California appear to agree on one point, they both do not like Senate Bill 1303. State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) introduced the measure, which cleared the state Assembly Transportation committee on Monday by an 11 to 1 vote (view legislation), to curb what he called "red light camera abuses."

"Senate Bill 1303 protects drivers' rights by... Prohibiting so called 'snitch tickets' (i.e., an innocent ticket recipient may not be required to identify another driver in order to clear an inaccurate ticket)," Simitian said in his statement on the bill's full Senate passage last month.

Far from prohibiting such tickets, formally known as "notices of non-liability," the bill creates a standardized form and process for issuing them. They exist because photo tickets carry license points, and courts will not accept any citation where the driver is not clearly identifiable. Instead of throwing out the inadmissible photos, for-profit vendors have realized they can send out letters with official city seals that look like tickets -- but are not -- asking the recipient to identify the driver. This happens in about 27 percent of cases, leading to the industry collecting on an extra 70,000 tickets per year worth about $35 million.

The current version of Simitian's bill adds a checkbox to the snitch ticket allowing recipients to certify that the vehicle is not theirs, has been stolen, that another driver (who must be named) was behind the wheel, or "none of the above." The latter checkbox is the equivalent of throwing away the ticket, and it has irked the organizations that receive a cut of the citations, including Redflex Traffic Systems, which operates cameras in 68 California cities and counties.

"We must oppose SB 1303 if the notice of non-liability form remains unchanged and continues to offer a 'none of the above' option," the California League of Cities' Dorthy Holzem wrote in a June 19 letter to lawmakers.

Many of those who contacted the committee to make the same point, including the chairman of a pedestrian activist group known as California Walks, sent their letters after receiving an urgent message from the "Transportation Safety Coalition" which styles itself as a "not-for-profit grassroots organization." As TheNewspaper reported last October, the coalition is actually the for-profit Chicago, Illinois-based public relations firm Resolute Consulting acting on behalf of its client, Redflex.

The Australian photo ticketing company, police unions, and the League of Cities all said they would support the bill if the "scofflaw box" on the notice were removed. Simitian said he would "keep working" on the provision, suggesting he is open to removing in an amendment.

That has photo enforcement critics worried that the bill has always been meant as a Trojan Horse to protect the rights of traffic camera companies, not motorists. Following a split in the Court of Appeal, the state Supreme Court is considering a ruling on whether red light camera evidence is inadmissible hearsay whose current use in the courtroom violates the Confrontation Clause. Simitian's measure alters the rules of evidence and declares photo tickets automatically admissible.

"SB 1303 is an extremely flawed piece of legislation that abrogates defendants' rights while doing nothing to protect Californians from the abusive use of red light cameras," Safer Streets LA Executive Director Jay Beeber wrote to the committee. "It is the quintessential wolf in sheep's clothing and we therefore urge you to reject this misguided bill."

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