Gotcha cams at stoplights, etc.

Various jurisdictions have been trying out unmanned cameras that are supposed to take photos of offending cars, then the license plate is divined by a human from those photos and a citation issued, sent to the DMV-recorded address of the car’s owner. I have several questions:

  1. What is the legality of having a machine accuse you of a crime? Has this been challenged in the courts?

  2. Does a person who goes to court and says a) the machine was mistaken or b) that wasn’t me driving the car have much of a chance of getting off?

(I have been inclined to think the answer to this question was “none,” since everyone accused of a traffic crime, in whatever fashion, is pretty much automatically guilty whether or not he shows up in court (cop’s word against yours, you lose, that sort of thing), but I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of people successfully challenging these kinds of tickets.)

In the city of Fife, Washington (a suburb of Seattle), red-light cameras were installed for a period of several months, with the intention of removing them after that period was up. The cameras were touted, not as an aid to law enforcement in cutting down the ghastly epidemic of red-light jumpers, but as a revenue-enhancement tool for a city with a strapped budget. So:

  1. Do the rights of the accused in traffic violation situations vary greatly from local jurisdiction to local jurisdiction? (Were I cynical, I would opine that if a city had just spent 50 grand to install red-light cams, it would be anxious to recoup its costs at the very least, so…but I’m not cynical.) And can one appeal a guilty verdict on a traffic citation outside the jurisdiction in which the case was heard?

Here’s how it works in some places. I can’t speak for all places

The city doesn’t pay to install the cameras. A private company installs them and shares in the revenue.

If the camera catches you running a red light you get a fine but no points on your record because maybe you weren’t driving the car.

Of course, you can be convicted of a crime based on photographic evidence. Happens all the time. That’s why there are surveillance cameras.

Coming to an area near you:

Mailed tickets for speeding based on electronic measurements. They do this in the UK and were testing it in Arizona.

Like RADAR gun, or is it some other way?

The sensors in the ground that some red light cameras use also detect speed. My city had RedFlex cameras. There was one set of speed-only cameras, and the rest were red light cameras when the light was red and speed cameras when the light was green. You can still see the sensors in the pavement (it was cheaper to leave them in when the cameras were taken out).

From Wikipedia:

Not sure but these might actually be Automatic Number Plate Recoginition cameras. They do make mistakes.

Such systems do take a photo and try to interpret the plate number automatically. I work with such a system and it is not perfect. For example, it sometimes reads an 8 as a 3 even when it seems obvious by the photo that it is an 8.

Local protocols would govern what procedure is used to try to verify that the plate number is read correctly.

I assume that if you show up in court and can reasonably show that the ANPR mis-identified your vehicle then you would be found not guilty.

In Los Angeles the city has ended the photo program, because almost half of the tickets weren’t getting paid–motorist knew that without a signature to agree to appear, the court wouldn’t enforce the fines. But even before that became evident, they were losing money, because the city still had to pay administrative costs (and maybe maintenance, I think).

I’ve trialled a couple of these systems (I’m in IT support for local government in the UK) - they typically capture multiple photos, running ANPR on one of them, but archiving the full set as evidence. In the case of a claim that the plate was misread, the photos are retrieved and will either support or refute the claim. The machine doesn’t need to be the final authority.

Also, in many cases, camera technology is good enough to get an identifiable shot of the driver, using multiple linked cameras in different locations.

In New Jersey at least it is not the machine accusing you of going through the red light. A sworn police officer must review each violation before a ticket is mailed out. On the ticket there is a link to your specific violation. You can watch it yourself and make the determination if it is worth fighting. It is a different statute than the regular red light ticket. It is written to the registered owner and there are no points. The other red light statute has 2 points and can only be issued to the driver. I don’t know how it is in other states.

Bear in mind that in the UK there is a positive duty to identify the driver of the car during the offence. That was taken all the way up to the ECHR because it was felt to be against the right to self incrminiation but it was not a unanimous verdict when it was felt not to.

I would expect that in America, where said right is more absolute and built into the constitution, that this won’t pass constiutional muster.

In a criminal case, it might not, but my city got around that by putting “notice of liability” at the top of the tickets. Strictly-speaking, they were just notices that the city was considering suing you, and that they would settle for $100 to avoid going to court (where the fine was supposed to be $25 more, although the program wasn’t around long enough to actually get tested in court). Alternatively, you could explain to the city why you shouldn’t be sued, and one of the reasons was that you weren’t driving the car. (But you had to pay $100 to access the “hearing officer,” an at-will employee of the police chief, and you would only be paid back if the hearing officer agreed to drop your case. If he dropped it because someone else was driving, IIRC you only got your money back once the person you alleged to be the driver paid up.)

Like Loach’s New Jersey, in Missouri an actual police officer reviews the camera photo before authorizing the ticket. The courts here have ruled that red light cameras are not in and of themselves a violation of rights, but that the system must give you a way to contest or appeal the ticket. Some cities have had their camera ordinances overturned, others have had them upheld.

Personally, my belief has always been that if you don’t want to be ticketed for speeding or running red lights, the best option available to you, as a citizen, is to not speed or run red lights. Most of the complaints about the cameras seem to revolve around people who are mad because they got caught breaking the law, and they’d have gotten away with it if not for those meddling cameras.

The idea of private companies making revenue off of speeding enforcement I find a little harder to swallow, but considering the current popular attitude that taxes are of the Devil and must never ever be raised for any reason ever, it’s hardly surprising that cities are looking for ways to increase revenue and cut enforcement expenses.

(Disclaimer: I’ve been ticketed for speeding twice in my life. Both times it happened I was genuinely speeding, I deserved the ticket, and I don’t begrudge the officer for doing his job.)

A more technical question: some of these have shown up around here at some lighted intersections, but (since we don’t have front plates in Florida) appear to be pointed the wrong way-oh they’ll take a pic of the vehicle, but only the front, which as I said is useless here. Or am I missing something?

What do they look like? The new traffic lights here have little tube-shaped cameras on the arms that hold the lights, but they’re definitely not enforcement cameras (which are banned by the city charter).

Rochester, NY has red light cameras and from what I understand violators are fined a $50.00 civil penalty (which means they’re not treated as moving violations so no points on the license and are not reported to the insurance company). Violations captured by the cameras are reviewed by a police officer before tickets are issued. Tickets go to the cars owner and can be challenged in court like any other ticket. Cameras are owned and operated by Redflex.

The Minnesota Supreme Court struck down red light camera laws in the state over presumption of innocence and because they violated state laws requiring a uniformity of traffic laws.

The ones in Chicago are big blocky things. Also, they flash very brilliantly at night. I have to admit that I do get a small chuckle every time I see them flash… for someone else.

In Montana, it’s generally been suggested they violate the right to privacy in our state constitution, but its never been tested because the legislature passed a law against them a few years back.

The statute is written in such a way that the registered owner is liable. Much the same way the owner is liable for all parking offenses that the vehicle is involved in.