- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

A California judge sharply criticized the automated camera system used by San Diego to punish red-light runners and suggested the cameras are so unreliable that the photographs cannot be used as evidence.
The San Diego system is similar to that used by the District. Like Washington's, it is operated by Lockheed Martin IMS, which operates the system in most jurisdictions that use the devices.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Styn said Wednesday that the common practice of paying Lockheed Martin a fee for every motorist convicted of running a red light "undermines the trustworthiness of the evidence which is used to prosecute red-light violators," adding that "Lockheed is supposed to be a neutral evaluator of the evidence. As such, Lockheed should not have a financial interest in the outcome." Lockheed Martin receives a fee of $70 for every $271 fine in San Diego resulting from the automated-camera system.
Although upholding the constitutionality of the use of the camera system, Judge Styn said that the high degree of control exercised by Lockheed Martin — whose employees install and maintain the system, review the photographs and actually print the citations for running a red light — is "so far outside the operation contemplated by the [California] Legislature that the evidence obtained by the system lacks the precautions necessary to instill the confidence required" for the photographs to be used as evidence in court.
Judge Styn gave the city of San Diego two weeks to convince him that he should not dismiss the charges against several hundred motorists who had challenged the San Diego system. He will hold a hearing on the matter Aug. 31.
"The evidence obtained from the red-light-camera system as presently operated appears so untrustworthy and unreliable that it lacks foundation and should not be admitted," he wrote.
The D.C. system resembles San Diego's in that Lockheed issues the tickets with little or no direct oversight by the police department and that the company gets a cut of every ticket issued. There are 39 red-light cameras in the District.
Arthur Tait, one of the lawyers representing the San Diego motorists, called the ruling a "great victory" and said it could affect similar systems nationwide.
"I think the biggest evil, which the court picked up on, is the city of San Diego opted to give up all their law enforcement authority [by] allowing this private profit motive."
But municipal and Lockheed Martin officials disagree, noting out that the judge declined to strike down the program as a violation of either state law or the U.S. Constitution.
"The judge said it's constitutional, it's essentially a good system but it just needs tweaking," said Mark Maddox, spokesman for the D.C.-based Lockheed. "Sure, you'd like to have 10 out of 10, but basically this is a nine out of 10 decision."
The judge disagreed with critics who say that the red-light cameras violate a driver's privacy and due-process rights. He said there is "no question that there is a legitimate governmental purpose in installing red-light cameras to promote safety on highways."
He said there may be a better way to crack down on red-light running, but under state and federal legal precedent "as long as a legitimate governmental interest is being served, the court should not intervene."
Deputy City Attorney Steve Hansen said San Diego stands by the way it operates the cameras at 19 intersections citywide, but that it could easily adjust the details of the contract if the judge does not change his mind after the Aug. 31 hearing.
The San Diego cameras have been turned off since June, when city officials discovered that Lockheed Martin had, without informing the police, changed the location of sensors in the street that trigger the camera. The judge cited that change as evidence that the privately owned Lockheed Martin exercises too much control over the cameras.
The city and police department are in the midst of a 60-day review of the red-light program. Mr. Hansen said the judge's criticisms are sure to be an element of that study.
"Whatever happens with this case, I am sure as a result of the audit there will be changes to the program," Mr. Hansen said.
The judge's ruling applies only to the details of the San Diego case and will not affect programs outside his California jurisdiction. Mr. Maddox said the ruling might make the company more careful in making sure programs conform to various state and local laws that authorize red-light cameras, but would otherwise not affect the way his company operates.
Richard Diamond, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, said the judge's ruling shows more oversight is needed of red-light-camera programs everywhere. "The evidence was so powerful in showing that San Diego had abused the system."
Mr. Armey has criticized the red-light cameras, saying they violate drivers' privacy and are simply revenue makers for cities.
"This should send a message to the District of Columbia that they have even less oversight than in San Diego," Mr. Diamond said. The judge's decision "has absolutely no precedent [setting] value," but demonstrates that an individual could mount a successful challenge to a red-light-camera conviction.
Since the red-light-camera programs are similar in the District and San Diego, the judge's ruling opens the possibility of litigation to overturn red-light-camera convictions in D.C. courts.
The District has been sharply criticized by members of Congress as well as spokesmen for the American Automobile Association's Mid-Atlantic Division because of the sheer volume of tickets the District has or expects to produce with its red-light and photo-radar cameras.
AAA spokesman Justin McNaull said the judge's ruling "shows the programs need to be operated in a correct and very open manner." It should have the government involved. Handing the whole program over to a private company isn't the way to do it."
In the District, Lockheed expects to make more than $44 million by the end of 2004 from the cameras, with the District taking in more than $117 million in revenue. Lockheed, which is being sold to Affiliated Computer Services of Dallas, takes a $32.50 cut out of every $75 red-light-camera ticket.
California is unusual among states that use red-light cameras because it chose to make the ticket a criminal violation, like a speeding ticket issued in person by a police officer. That means motorists caught by the camera get points against their driving record and the violation is reported to insurance companies.
Most states, as well as the District, make the red-light violations a civil matter, meaning the driver is only fined and does not face further punishment by the department of motor vehicles or insurance companies.
The Department of Transportation reports that there are 345 red-light cameras in use in 30 cities in 19 states. So far, 11 states — none of them in the Washington area — have banned the cameras.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide