Red light, tough fight

More Sacramento drivers than ever are contesting tickets—many of them caught by red-light traffic cameras

A local attorney who specializes in traffic cases, Robert Pacuinas calls into question local government’s handling of red-light traffic violations. The district attorney’s office, he says, is “not complying with the evidence code.”

A local attorney who specializes in traffic cases, Robert Pacuinas calls into question local government’s handling of red-light traffic violations. The district attorney’s office, he says, is “not complying with the evidence code.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Sacramento County is handing out more traffic tickets—especially violations for running red lights, which can cost nearly $500—than ever. But the increase is accompanied by another fact: More residents than ever seem to be fighting these infractions in court.

Last year, the number of traffic infractions and misdemeanors handed out in Sacramento County grew by 4 percent. The number’s been rising steadily over the last four years, and in fiscal year 2009-2010, Sacramento County saw 266,934 traffic filings, according to the county’s 2010 Court Statistics Report. In terms of much-needed revenue, the growth in filings is good news for the county.

But nothing’s that simple.

“With traffic filings increasing there has been a corresponding increase in the number of scheduled hearings for traffic,” read the statistics report. “One possible cause could be an increase in the number of people contesting their traffic tickets in court rather than just paying the fine.”

The increased violations are due, in part, to the growing number of red-light traffic cameras at intersections throughout the region. And those who choose to fight a ticket face a roadblock, since the local district attorney’s office hasn’t allowed full access to evidence in these cases since 2003.

Lexie, who did not want her real name used because her case is still pending, is a Sacramento resident currently contesting a red-light ticket. “I received a notice in the mail in December,” she said. “It said my car made a right turn on a red light at Watt [Avenue] and Fair Oaks [Boulevard]. I went to court and asked them to prove that it was me.”

Of course, just because Lexie and more like her are fighting tickets doesn’t mean that the process has gotten easy. In his story “Red light, green cash” (SN&R Feature; November 25, 2004), reporter Gary Webb described a system in which automated red-light traffic cameras, law-enforcement officers and traffic commissioners all worked with one purpose in mind: making money.

In the six-and-a-half years since that story, the system has, if anything, gotten even more expensive and time-consuming for those accused of running red lights.

“It’s a complete joke,” said Robert Pacuinas, a Sacramento attorney who specializes in traffic cases and was once busted at the Carol Miller Justice Center for handing out copies of a court decision that overturned various procedures still in use today at Sacramento’s traffic court.

“Basically, this is a tax. And it’s an illegal tax.”

Back in 2004, there were 17 intersections in both the city and unincorporated portions of Sacramento equipped with automated cameras capable of snapping pictures of cars running red lights, and fines cost $351. Today there are 20 camera-equipped intersections, and there are plans to raise that number to 30 by the end of the year, according to Kevin Holt of the Sacramento Metropolitan Red Light Photo Enforcement Program. Eventually, Holt said, the county would like to position cameras at 40 intersections.

Fines have risen, too—up to $436, according to the signs posted at camera-equipped intersections. But that number doesn’t include other various court fees, which typically bring the total cost of running a red light to about $470.

Still, that doesn’t translate into as much revenue as you think going into county coffers, even though cops and cameras are handing out more infractions than ever. Though the county Department of Finance says 11,545 red-light violations from automated cameras alone went out in fiscal years 2009-10, court communications director Gerry Root says there were only 4,446 actual convictions during that time period.

“Not everyone who is cited pays their fine,” Root said in an email. “Many defendants elect to complete community service in lieu of paying the fine … or many people fail to appear at a scheduled court date and come in at a later date to resolve.”

In terms of revenue, Sacramento County brought in $595,857 in red-light fines last year (that’s all red-light violations from cameras and cops—according to Root, “There is no way to determine the revenue on camera citations only.” Of course, nearly half that amount—$248,025—is considered Assembly Bill 233 money, meaning that it goes to the state. That left just $347,832 for the county general fund, though this number will almost assuredly go up next year, since in the current fiscal year through February, the county’s 20 cameras alone have already snapped 14,133 red-light infractions.

There are 20 camera-equipped intersections in the city and county of Sacramento, with plans to raise that number to 30 by the end of the year.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Of course, those cameras aren’t free. They’re provided by Redflex, a $136 million company headquartered in Arizona. According to the company’s 2010 annual report, Redflex operates speed and red-light cameras in 255 American cities. In fact, the company bills itself as “the largest provider of digital red light and speed enforcement services in North America.” Redflex has also expanded into Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and China.

Since late December 2008, Redflex has supplied and maintained Sacramento’s cameras, processed the images of drivers and license plates and sent out notices of violation to the car’s registered owners. Its $3 million contract is scheduled to run out at the end of 2011, but Holt said he was pretty sure the contract would be extended.

Redflex pretty much does it all, including packaging up the relevant photos for violations. That’s how Lexie found out—one day last December, she received a letter from Redflex’s Arizona office saying she ran a red light and would have to go to traffic court. The notice included a fuzzy photo of her car at the intersection, and fuzzy blow-ups of the license plate and driver (“Just a woman with white skin and fluffy hair,” Lexie said).

According to Sgt. Todd Deluca, who runs the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s red-light program, a law-enforcement officer (usually California Highway Patrol) reviews each and every package received from Redflex and then decides whether to issue a citation. He said most people can also go online to a special website and view additional photos and 20 seconds of video taken before and after the alleged violation.

“Most people [after seeing the evidence against them] agree that they ran a red light and that’s the end of it,” said Deluca.

Lexie thought otherwise, and decided to fight the ticket. And that meant representing herself.

“It’s cost-prohibitive for people to go to trial,” said Pacuinas, who offered advice to Lexie but is not representing her. “When I show up, they automatically send us downtown. Their logic is that my cases go beyond 20 minutes they’ve allotted for each traffic case. I haven’t done a red-light case in three or four years.”

Root denied that the courts have set a time limit for traffic cases. “If we have a trial that we feel will be longer than the average trial, we will try to move it to another department at [the Carol Miller Justice Center] as a courtesy to other parties waiting to have their trials heard in that same department,” Root wrote in an April 7 email. “All traffic infraction trials are heard at CMJC.”

In any case, after pleading not guilty, Lexie went to the district attorney’s office to request discovery for her case. There she was told the district attorney’s office hasn’t provided discovery since 2003 and that defendants had to contact the police officer named on the citation.

“That’s against the law,” Pacuinas said. “They’re not complying with the evidence code.”

District attorney spokeswoman Shelly Orio denied that, calling discovery for traffic infractions “an informal process.”

“We were sort of getting caught in the middle,” she said about the decision to stop processing discovery requests. “We would just turn around and give the requests to law-enforcement agencies.”

Lexie said she ended up not requesting discovery, but said that just before her trial came up, the CHP officer—one of two who reviews all infraction cases and testifies in court—took into the hallway and showed her the evidence against her.

“He showed me a cover sheet to a maintenance log with lots of signatures from Redflex employees,” Lexie said. “I asked if there were schematics, maintenance logs for 30 days before and after the ticket and history of the signage of the intersection, but he said that’s all there was.”

During the trial, Lexie said the officer couldn’t read the name of the first signature on the maintenance logs when asked, but the judge found her guilty anyway. At arraignment, she had been told the fine would be $466, but now that had increased to $470.

Still insisting that the court hadn’t proved she was the woman in the photo, Lexie appealed her case and requested a stay of sentence. Both are pending.

“Every aspect of how evidence is presented is inadmissible,” Pacuinas said of the system. “They’re not complying with the evidence code. But at some point, you realize that you’re not going to win. It’s just designed to make money.”