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Trigger-Happy Traffic Camera to Cost County $500,000

A crusader against the red-light devices discovers timing error. Judge orders refunds.

May 16, 2003|Jean Guccione and Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

The complaints of a retiree infuriated last year when his picture was snapped by a red-light camera set in motion an unlikely chain of events that ended Thursday with Los Angeles County ordered to pay at least half a million dollars in traffic-ticket refunds.

And officials say they cannot even begin to guess the final price tag in the case of the missing half-second at an East Los Angeles intersection.

It all began in August 2000, when county officials placed cameras at the busy intersection of Whittier and Atlantic boulevards. The cameras -- among five groups installed at intersections in the county to photograph motorists running red lights -- were set to catch cars that entered the intersection more than three seconds after the signal turned yellow.

Enter the retiree, one of a small but devoted group of Americans who wage a campaign against red-light cameras. His anger over being ticketed at a Culver City intersection with such cameras last year prompted him to create a Web site devoted to the issue, www.highwayrobbery.net.

In March, he said, he received an e-mail from someone who had been ticketed at Whittier and Atlantic and had seen the Web site. The e-mail asked what the man knew about that intersection.

So he went to the scene, armed with a video camera. He taped the light and took the tape home for analysis -- a practice he said he has used at other intersections throughout the area in the last few months.

He thought he had proof that the yellow light didn't meet state standards for length.

He said he complained repeatedly to the California Highway Patrol. County Department of Public Works officials went to the intersection to check his claims. They discovered that the light stayed yellow for 3.5 seconds.

Because the camera started snapping after three seconds of yellow, more than half of the 5,063 tickets issued over the cameras' 42 months of operation were invalid -- the drivers had been "caught" while the light was still amber.

The whole mess has nothing to do with the complainer's own citation -- which he is battling on appeal in Los Angeles courts. The man, a retired car-parts manufacturer, responded by e-mail to The Times and provided his phone number on the condition that he not be named. His Web site is traceable only to a San Diego business address that has no listed phone number.

"I'm involved in a lot of other political issues," he said, adding that he didn't want to be distracted from myriad gadfly activities by losing his anonymity. He spends every Thursday at the Culver City traffic court monitoring cases in the jurisdiction where he was ticketed, he said.

His complaint led to more than 2,000 traffic convictions involving the Whittier and Atlantic intersection being vacated Thursday by a Los Angeles judge. An additional 758 pending cases were dismissed.

Superior Court Judge David Sotelo ordered the county to refund fines paid by 2,014 motorists -- a ticket that cost $271 before Jan. 1 and $321 since.

Unfairly convicted motorists may also be eligible to recoup costs for lost work time, increased insurance premiums and traffic school, said Miguel Santana, a spokesman for county Supervisor Gloria Molina, who represents the affected area.

Letters in English and Spanish will be sent to all affected drivers next week, and checks will automatically be issued as soon as possible, county officials said.

Opponents of the cameras said Thursday that the latest snafu should serve as a warning about the flaws of system billed as a safety tool by government officials but seen as simply a revenue generator by foes.

"Get rid of the darn things and have human beings issue tickets," said Los Angeles attorney Michael S. Klein. "You may not even know you got a ticket until it comes in the mail weeks later. At that point, there's no way to turn to witnesses and ask them if you really did run the red light."

County officials say no problems have been discovered at the other locations where cameras have been installed. The officials are working to resolve the fallout from the error, said Warren R. Wellen, senior deputy county counsel.

"This was human error," said Ken Pellman, spokesman for the Department of Public Works. "It was not a malfunction with the system."

CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick said his officers had stopped issuing tickets at Whittier and Atlantic until he could be assured that the equipment was working properly throughout Los Angeles County. The cameras are now back in use, he said.

Helmick blames the county for the blunder and said he demanded action: "I wanted those [fines] already paid to be refunded. And those not paid, to be dismissed."

Santana, Molina's spokesman, said their office was told that the timer was initially set wrong by a county worker but that the Dallas-based vendor, Affiliated Computer Services Inc., regularly tested the equipment, and "they gave us the OK."

Molina is asking for a report on the incident.

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