Calling a red light a red light

Undeterred by a controversy over a racially charged expression and the lack of support from city leaders, Sacramento’s sole crusader against a system that mails tickets to those who run red lights continues to push for change.

Attorney Robert Pacuinas was the guy who first came to the Sacramento City Council with concerns that a private company’s administration of the red light camera system raised ethical and legal concerns (see “Big Brother, Inc.,” SN&R, October 25).

Last month, as the City Council considered changing how that company was compensated in order to avoid such conflict-of-interest concerns, Pacuinas was back to argue that the proposed change didn’t go far enough. But his statement was interrupted by Councilwoman Lauren Hammond when he used the phrase “call a spade a spade,” which she considers a racial slur.

The conflict created a minor hoopla that was covered by the mainstream press and Hammond ultimately apologized for reading racism into the innocent idiom. But Pacuinas was less concerned with Hammond’s sensitivities or apology than his belief that his main point fell on deaf ears as the council approved the change.

The current per-ticket fee paid to Affiliated Computer Systems (ACS) will be changed to a monthly flat rate. The monthly flat rate is about equal to the average monthly per-ticket amount (around $90,000) and is renegotiable every six months. The fact that they can renegotiate twice a year, says Pacuinas, makes the entire change insignificant: the city still pays ACS according to how much revenue is generated by the system, creating an incentive to issue more tickets.

But because a San Diego judge in August ruled that the per-ticket fee payment cast suspicion over San Diego’s system, Sacramento apparently feels the flat rate will look better to the public eye. Marty Hanniman of the Department of Traffic Engineering said Sacramento wants to avoid any legal problems stemming from the per-ticket payment scheme.

Pacuinas feels that the system has many legal problems aside from that, even though no one is doing anything about them. Among his many allegations is the claim that the traffic commissioners are biased toward the prosecution, as evidenced by a video played in court that advocates for the prosecution. There is also the fact, he says, that because the citations, which constitute the prosecution’s complaint of a violation, also include the photographs, the court is in possession of the prosecution’s evidence before it hears from the defense.

Ross Huggins, lead prosecutor at the traffic court, didn’t return calls for this article.

Pacuinas does have reason to hope. An appeal filed for a case he lost earlier this year is set to be heard in February. He feels the grounds of his appeal should be enough to expose what he sees as obvious procedural glitches in the system.

Bolstering his claim that the prosecutors are fearful of what this appeal may bring to light is a copy of a letter from Deputy District Attorney Kelly Lutz to the judge hearing the case. The letter requests that “the ticket in the above matter be dismissed, rendering the appeal moot.”

The judge denied the request.