Big Brother, Inc.

Sacramento’s photo-enforcement program looks a lot like San Diego’s, which was recently struck down in court

Rosemary Muller was mailed a ticket with these images after allegedly running the stop light at Howe Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard.

Rosemary Muller was mailed a ticket with these images after allegedly running the stop light at Howe Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard.

Courtesy Of Affiliated Computer Systems

You’ve probably seen the signs: the words “PHOTO ENFORCED” beneath a picture of a traffic light. You may also have seen the cameras themselves: unobtrusive beige boxes on poles near the traffic signals.

What you can’t see, aside from the sensors in the ground that check your speed against the timing of the red light, are the workings of a system in which a private corporation has been entrusted with the jobs of public surveillance and law enforcement.

A recent ruling in a San Diego court has exposed problems posed by red-light camera systems around the country, offering a vindication of sorts for Sacramento attorney Robert Pacuinas. He has long been the lone voice loudly complaining that Sacramento’s program is illegal, and he believes the testimony of a Sacramento Police officer proves it.

Ours is a society that has always regarded the idea of government surveillance as somewhat suspect, if not downright egregious. Americans have always closely guarded their privacy. We viscerally fear that “Big Brother is watching,” something many of us developed after being required to read George Orwell’s 1984 in school.

Nonetheless, surveys by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) indicate that 80 percent of people in large cities approve of red-light cameras, mostly because of their effectiveness in discouraging people from running red lights, which accounts for 22 percent of accidents. As of December 2000, IIHS says several cities around the country that have such systems were reporting reductions in the number of red-light accidents by anywhere from 30 to 40 percent.

Rosemary Muller, a 67-year-old retired teacher, received her first citation at the corner of Howe Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard in August 2000. Suspicious that the cameras were not working properly, she nonetheless paid the $271 fine and subsequently did her best to avoid the intersection.

This past August she received another citation for running a red light at the same intersection. She has the feeling, after two citations at the same intersection, that something is wrong with the system.

“I just don’t think I did this,” she said. “I’m very, very careful.”

Unconcerned with the Orwellian undertones of the cameras, Muller thinks automated enforcement is fine as long as the system functions properly. “They say machines never break down, misfire,” she said, “I just don’t believe that. There’s just something wrong with [the cameras].”

Here’s how the cameras work: if a car going above a certain speed (usually around 15 mph) enters an intersection where the light has been red for at least 2/10 of a second, it trips a detection loop in the ground and a camera is activated which takes two photographs, one of the car near the stop line and another of it in the middle of the intersection.

The photograph is then processed and four images are made from it: one of each full shot, one zoomed in on the license plate, and another on the driver’s face. These are affixed to a citation that is sent to the registered owner. The fine in California is $271.

But because cities don’t have the money for the cameras ($50,000 apiece) or the manpower necessary to deal with the huge increase in citations (about 600 per day in Sacramento), they contract a large part of the work out to private companies. In Sacramento, Affiliated Computer Systems (ACS) currently shoulders the burden.

Robert Pacuinas thinks there’s a lot more wrong than just the cameras. A former California Highway Patrol officer, you can easily imagine him in uniform, with his crew cut, muscular build and insistence on the minute details of the law.

A lawyer since 1997, he first encountered what he sees as the shortcomings of Sacramento’s photo-enforcement program when he got a ticket a year and a half ago, also at the corner of Howe and Fair Oaks. When prosecutors failed to comply with his discovery request, asking for a slew of documents pertaining to the operation of the cameras, Pacuinas got suspicious. Then the court lost his ticket and the charge was dismissed.

But through defending about 10 other people cited by cameras, he has accumulated some interesting evidence, the most notable of which is a trial transcript from February when he cross-examined Officer Tom Jackson, who works on SPD’s photo-enforcement program.

Under oath, Jackson admitted that Lockheed Martin (who had the job before ACS) operated the system, not the police or the city. He also acknowledged that Lockheed affixed his signature digitally to the citations before he even reviewed them, and that led Pacuinas to believe that some citations may have been issued without an officer having reviewed photographic evidence.

Rosemary Muller was mailed a ticket with these images after allegedly running the stop light at Howe Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard.

Courtesy Of Affiliated Computer

“When you indicated that you sometimes authorized these tickets to go out without actually reviewing any photographic evidence, what information are you basing a violation on exactly?” asked Pacuinas. Jackson responded, “The information on the review letter itself,” which is a list of violations compiled by the company.

The list contains locations, dates, red-light times and speed of the vehicle, but not photographs. When asked if he knew if the information on the review sheet was based on photographs or on a memory card from the camera, Officer Jackson said, “I don’t know.”

Pacuinas’ conclusion was that Lockheed Martin was doing everything but testify and that was in violation of California Vehicle Code section 21455.5, which authorizes automated enforcement systems, but which explicitly states, “Only a governmental agency, in cooperation with a law enforcement agency, may operate an automated enforcement system.”

His argument was that the evidence generated by the cameras was not trustworthy because there had not been enough law enforcement oversight and that the officers who testify in these cases do not know enough about the technical aspects of the system to qualify as reliable witnesses: “They should have a technical expert from ACS there [in court],” he says, “not a police officer who doesn’t know how these things work.”

The judge did not buy that argument and Pacuinas lost the case, but his appeal is set for February.

Private corporations don’t always hold the public’s interest as their top priority. That must’ve been exactly what the California Legislature was thinking when it drafted Vehicle Code section 21455.5, barring private companies from operating these systems.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald Styn, after seven days of hearings in August, thought so as well. He found that “the City of San Diego and the San Diego Police Department do not operate the red light camera system as contemplated by the Legislature.” This finding was supported, his ruling went on to state, by the fact that Lockheed Martin (who runs San Diego’s system) moved loops at several intersections without the city’s knowledge, much less their approval.

“The combination of the total lack of oversight over the system operated by Lockheed Martin and the method of compensation [the per ticket fee] raises serious questions regarding the regularity of the evidence produced by this system,” he ruled.

The resulting photographic evidence of some 300 violations was therefore found inadmissible and the district attorney couldn’t prosecute them. San Diego has since suspended its program while an independent audit is conducted. The ruling won’t affect other jurisdictions unless supported by an appeals court, and the decision has not been appealed.

While Sacramento’s system is run very similarly to San Diego’s, Lieutenant Jim Maccoun of SPD’s Metro Unit insists that precautions have been taken, especially since Styn’s ruling, to ensure that ACS isn’t abusing its authority. SPD does not allow ACS to move anything without their permission, ACS provides a maintenance log of each camera system and monthly unannounced audits are set to begin soon.

The role of ACS, he explained, is to install and maintain the cameras, including removing the film, processing it and screening out those photos which don’t yield a clear enough image to allow for a successful prosecution. ACS sends the remaining prosecutable citations to the police who review each and every one, they say, and then send the authorized ones back to ACS to mail the citations. ACS receives $87 per ticket.

Maccoun did admit, however, that signatures were at one time affixed digitally by the private company because the three officers assigned to the program couldn’t sign so many citations. The 10 cameras in Sacramento each catch about 60 violations a day, about half of which are prosecutable. That’s 300 signatures a day.

The officers now use stamps of their signatures and ACS does not pre-sign the citations. When asked what he thought of Officer Jackson’s testimony that he did not know if the information he was signing off on was based on photo evidence or on a memory card from the camera, Maccoun said, “It’s essentially a question of semantics. My position is still that we operate the system and ACS doesn’t.”

ACS didn’t return calls requesting comment on the issue.

Although Judge Styn’s ruling is not binding outside San Diego, Pacuinas thought it would encourage the police to stop the system here in Sacramento altogether. But with $70 million to $100 million a year coming in from

red-light violations, he realized that wasn’t likely.

“The rules are all getting contorted to generate revenue,” he says, referring to what he believes are efforts on the part of both city officials and ACS to make contesting these tickets seem like a waste of time.

He objects the showing of a prosecution video in court that demonstrates to the defendant the infallibility of the automated system that cited them. He nitpicks the wording on the citation regarding the posting of bail, claiming that it misrepresents the law. He accuses the courts of being complicit with the prosecution and police in what he sees as “malicious prosecutions” aimed at making money, and even thinks insurance companies are in on it, seeing as the violations allow them to raise their rates.

But mostly, he agrees with Judge Styn that there’s something inherently wrong with ACS or Lockheed Martin having a direct financial incentive to write a ticket. All of these things will be brought up in Pacuinas’ appeal in February. Optimistic that he’ll win, he says, “I don’t think a judge in the Superior Court can overlook what’s going on in these traffic courts.”