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Who knew L.A.'s red-light camera fines were 'voluntary'?

Drivers who paid the tickets, some of which are $476, fume at the disclosure that authorities cannot force violators to pay up. But don't expect to get a refund.

July 27, 2011|By Ari Bloomekatz, Abby Sewell and Kate Mather, Los Angeles Times

Morgan Harvey, who was hit with a ticket in May for making an illegal right turn at Pico Boulevard and Bundy Drive, said she had been putting off paying the fine, but now plans not to.

"If it's not going to affect my credit or if I don't have to go to court or have a boot on my car, then I won't," said Harvey, who works in marketing.

Some motorists are angry the Los Angeles city program could be axed after they paid up.

"I'm pissed off," said Abigail Stone, a Los Angeles writer who paid a ticket three months ago. "I really could have used the money for a lot of other things. And it's like, if they're going to phase it out, why couldn't they have figured it out?.… It's just really annoying."

The city Police Commission, in part citing the difficulty collecting fines, voted last month to shut down the program. The issue has been debated in City Council meetings and committee hearings several times since.

After a three-hour hearing Monday, one committee voted unanimously to recommend the program be phased out. A second committee made roughly the same recommendation Tuesday afternoon.

The possibility of ending the program in the nation's second-largest city has thrust Los Angeles into the forefront of the debate over the effectiveness of the red-light cameras. Some experts and LAPD officials have said the cameras have reduced collisions, but other studies found that the cameras increase rear-end collisions.

A Times investigation also found that most of Los Angeles' red-light camera tickets were for rolling right turns, which some experts consider less dangerous violations.

Some cities, such as Anaheim, passed ballot measures banning red-light camera programs. In El Monte, which ended its program in 2008, a study found no difference in the accident rate at intersections with and without cameras.

But a number of other cities in Los Angeles County that have the programs in place said, despite the lack of teeth in court enforcement, they are pleased with their programs and haven't had problems collecting on red-light tickets.

In Santa Clarita, a program launched in 2004 generates net revenues of $600,000 to $700,000 a year from cameras at seven intersections, said city spokeswoman Gail Ortiz.

At camera-equipped intersections, broadside collisions have decreased 64% and red-light violations have dropped 71%, she said.

"If anything, we would contemplate adding new [cameras], but at this point, we're going to leave it as it is," Ortiz said.

And other counties, such as San Diego and Ventura, do enforce a policy of notifying the DMV when people fail to appear or pay citations.

Although refunds may not yet be available to those like Brickman who paid their tickets, Sherman Ellison, an attorney who has dealt with "hundreds" of such traffic cases, said some class-action lawyers are watching the Los Angeles County situation closely and determining whether there would be grounds for a lawsuit to recover red-light camera penalties.

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