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The Red-Light Camera: Ticket to Controversy

May 10, 2000|JEANNE WRIGHT

Judging by the deluge of e-mails and calls we've received, the debate over red-light cameras remains a hot-button issue.

It seems there's no middle ground in the controversy, based on the response generated by our story last week on plans by the city of Los Angeles to install its first 16 traffic-enforcement cameras by year's end.

On the one hand, many readers fumed over what they see as government's Big Brother tactics and the stiff $271 fines the red-light systems generate. Others praised photo enforcement as a way to save lives ("Red-Light Runners, Your Photos Are Ready," May 3).

A few San Diego residents tipped us off to the fact that three red-light camera cases were recently thrown out of court there on grounds that the city's use of the cameras violates California's speed-trap law.

In adopting red-light camera enforcement, the city of Los Angeles joins Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Culver City, San Diego, San Francisco, Oxnard, Garden Grove and Sacramento, among other California cities. Fresno, ranked No. 2 per capita in the nation for the number of red-light-running accidents in 1996, is close to adopting a camera enforcement plan.

Cities across the country are installing the cameras in an effort to reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries in accidents caused by vehicles sailing through red lights.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va., estimates that red-light violations cause about 260,000 crashes a year nationwide and result in about 800 deaths and 120,000 injuries.

Studies of urban intersections with red-light camera enforcement found that violations dropped 40% to 60%, Julie Rochman of the Insurance Institute said. In addition, safety officials note a "spillover" effect in which the incidence of red-light running drops at nearby intersections, even where no cameras are installed.

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The controversy over the traffic cameras has been particularly fierce in San Diego, where the city plans to install 32 cameras by year's end.

On April 27, San Diego Superior Court Commissioner Michael Goodman dismissed a camera enforcement citation against Robert Trigg Stewart, who had been caught on camera allegedly making a left turn through a red light at a busy intersection in San Diego on the night of Dec. 19.

Goodman threw out the case after ruling that the speed evidence reported by the camera's automatic traffic control system was inadmissible under the state's speed-trap law.

Section 40801 of the California Vehicle Code states that police are prohibited from using a "speed trap in arresting, or participating or assisting in the arrest of any person for any alleged violation of this code, nor shall any speed trap be used in securing evidence as to the speed of any vehicle for the purpose of an arrest or prosecution."

Stewart's lawyer, Judith Litzenberger of Bardsley & Carlos in San Diego, argued that when the red-light camera system measured the speed of her client's vehicle for the purpose of citing him for running a red light, the speed trap law was violated.

Goodman agreed and tossed out the speed evidence. Without the speed evidence from the camera to calculate when Stewart's car entered the intersection, the police officer told the judge, the case could not proceed against Stewart, according to Litzenberger.

Goodman dismissed the citation against Stewart, as well as two other red-light-running cases from the same intersection of Harbor Drive and Grape Street, a San Diego Superior Court official confirmed.

San Diego Deputy City Atty. Steve Hansen called the commissioner's ruling a mistake. Hansen and other proponents of the cameras contend that the speed-trap law does not apply to the red-light camera cases, because although the camera records the vehicle's speed, the violation is running a red light, not speeding.

"The speed-trap issue came up in the past, but we thought it had all been resolved," Hansen said. Goodman's ruling does not set a legal precedent, both Hansen and Litzenberger said.

Other commissioners are not throwing out the citations on grounds that the cameras violate the speed-trap law, Hansen noted. Goodman is on a planned medical leave and was unavailable for comment, court officials said.

The San Diego court ruling will not affect Los Angeles' photo-enforcement plan, said John Fisher, assistant general manager for the city's Department of Transportation.

Fisher agrees with Hansen that the speed-trap law applies to speeding violations but "does not apply to red-light cameras."

Although the speed of the vehicle may play a part in someone running a red light, not all red-light runners are exceeding the speed limit when they commit the offense, Fisher said.

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