California Courts Split on Red Light Camera Contracts
Appellate court in Los Angeles, California rules that red light cameras tickets can be issued by companies with illegal contract arrangements.
The Appellate Division of the Superior Court in Los Angeles County, California on Monday disagreed with its appellate colleagues to the south over the legality of red light camera tickets issued by companies under a financial incentive to produce more tickets. The court upheld a citation generated by a machine on July 8, 2007 at the intersection of Avenue L and 20th Street in Lancaster. The automated camera snapped a photo of a 2004 Honda making a left-hand turn just 0.18 seconds after the light had turned red.
The defendant in the case argued that this ticket was invalid because it had been issued by a private company and the city of Lancaster who were operating together under an arrangement specifically forbidden by the state's red light camera statute. The law requires that camera contractors be compensated on a flat-rate basis to remove the financial incentive for the company to issue more tickets. Lancaster is one of dozens of California cities ignoring this mandate by using a "cost neutral" formula that adjusts the rate paid based on whether the number of tickets issued falls within a certain range.
The Orange County appellate court in December struck down photo tickets issued in the city of Fullerton because it used a similar payment scheme (view decision). The Los Angeles appellate court, however, refused to consider whether or not the Lancaster arrangement violated the law. It insisted that this question was irrelevant.
"Had the legislature intended for such compliance or contract language to be conditions precedent to the issuance of citations, part of the prosecution's prima facie case, or a basis for the exclusion of evidence, it would have simply included the appropriate language reflecting its intent in the statute," Judge Patti Jo McKay wrote for the three-judge panel.
In effect, McKay ruled that if a municipality refuses to follow the law by using a contract based upon bounty payments, nothing can be done about it. McKay also refused to overturn the ticket on the grounds that the city had refused to provide to the defendant inspection, calibration and maintenance records for both the traffic light and the red light camera. The appellate court ruled that it was appropriate to conceal this information because the defendant failed to prove that the unseen documents contained exculpatory evidence.
"Other than speculation, there is no basis to conclude that the calibration and maintenance report contained information favorable to the defendant," McKay wrote.
Both the Orange County and Los Angeles courts draw millions in revenue from "court costs" imposed on the $400 camera ticket. Despite this, the Orange County court has been consistently more skeptical of the procedures used in automated ticketing. The split between the courts can only be resolved by referring a case to the California Court of Appeal or Supreme Court. In 2005, the high court sided with the Orange County court's reasoning and declined to reopen a decision that tossed a photo ticket over a city's failure to follow warning requirements. The decision was left unpublished, denying it precedential value, until the same defendant filed an identical case that was ordered published earlier this month.
View the ruling in a 550k PDF file at the source link below.
Source: California v. McDonald (California Superior Court, Appellate Division, 2/23/2009)