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Traffic Cameras Spur Conflict Lawsuits

Cities that give firms part of each citation have run into trouble in court. San Juan Capistrano is among those weighing flat rate.

November 14, 2002|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Authorities are considering changes in the way private operators of red-light cameras in San Juan Capistrano are paid, amid criticism that the current system encourages officials to hand out as many traffic tickets as possible.

Joining a growing number of agencies across the country, the city has proposed that the operator receive a flat monthly rate for running the system rather than getting a percentage of each ticket.

The current system "may cause some to believe [officials] are less objective in determining whether a citation should be issued," Orange County Sheriff's Lt. J.B. Davis said in a memo to city officials.

"If this were the interpretation one desired to adopt, it could be argued that the [city's] objectivity in determining the validity of a violation ... could be tainted," Davis said.

San Juan Capistrano is one of dozens of cities that have installed cameras at busy intersections to catch drivers who run red lights.

The cameras are linked to pavement sensors and synchronized with the traffic signals to snap pictures after the light turns red.

But nearly everywhere the cameras have been installed, critics have complained that they violate driver privacy and amount to profit-making enterprises for cities as well as the companies that operate the equipment.

A state audit released this year found that the cameras reduce accidents, but that oversight of the programs is lax and cities that use the cameras are vulnerable to lawsuits.

The criticism has prompted some cities to stop paying companies for each ticket. San Diego switched to the flat-rate system after losing a court battle over the cameras. Attorneys representing 292 drivers argued that giving a contractor $70 of each $271 fine collected was incentive for the company to "prosecute for profit." Superior Court Judge Ronald Styn agreed.

San Juan Capistrano, which has cameras at three intersections, pays RedFlex Inc. up to $59 per ticket. The proposed change would pay the Culver City firm $9,000 per month.

A staff report said the change should not affect the city financially. Councilman Wyatt T. Hart said he believes the system is honest but understands the perception of a conflict of interest.

"By doing flat-fee, that would eliminate that perception," Hart said.

"I want to look at the [program] to see what it's accomplishing

"If it can be shown that it reduces accidents and injuries and makes the streets safer for the citizens of San Juan Capistrano, then I'll support it."

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