Fort Worth may soon consider allowing jury trials for red-light camera tickets
Posted Monday, Nov. 02, 2009 Comments (0) Print Share Reprints Topics: Local Governments
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By MIKE LEE
FORT WORTH ó The City Council might vote soon on whether to allow drivers to ask for a jury trial if they get a ticket for running a red light based on evidence from red-light cameras in Fort Worth.
One vocal opponent of red-light cameras said jury trials might add so much cost and hassle to the system that local governments eventually do away with the cameras in Texas. A city attorney in Fort Worth said he doubted that, predicting that only a few people would actually go to trial.
Fort Worth has had cameras monitoring red lights at several intersections since 2007. Drivers are issued a $75 ticket for an alleged violation.
The violations are considered a civil penalty, like a parking ticket, so drivers donít get a criminal record or face higher insurance premiums. Drivers who want to fight the citation can request an administrative hearing and can appeal that decision to municipal court.
But it wasnít clear until recently whether drivers could ask for a jury trial. Deputy City Attorney Gerald Pruitt recommended Monday that the City Council change its ordinance and allow jury trials for red-light cameras.
"In our view, itís a constitutional right," Pruitt said.
It wasnít clear when the council would vote on such an ordinance, but members of the Municipal Court Committee appeared to agree with it.
"I think itís important that our municipal courts have some kind of guidelines," Councilman Carter Burdette said.
The decision stems in part from a complaint by James Patterson of Saginaw, who was ticketed last winter for running the light at Western Center Boulevard and Beach Street in far north Fort Worth.
He fought the ticket in an administrative hearing, then appealed to municipal court, trying to prove that the traffic light had been tampered with. He also asked for a jury trial in municipal court. That prompted two city prosecutors to write a memo saying that he was entitled to a jury.
The judge in his case turned down Pattersonís request, however, and he lost his bench trial in October. "I just felt totally railroaded," Patterson said.
Red-light cameras have been a hot-button issue since they were introduced. In most cases, cities lease the cameras from a private company and receive a portion of the revenue. A 2007 state law requires cities to share much of their revenue with the state.
Critics have said the system denies drivers a chance to face their accuser in court.
A spokesman for American Traffic Solutions, which operates the cameras in Fort Worth and several other area cities, did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
In a separate case in Dallas, a judge ruled that red-light cameras are illegal because the companies arenít licensed as private investigators in Texas. That case is on appeal.
Lloyd Ward, the attorney in that case, said requiring a jury trial might make the system too expensive to continue.
"My goal, to be quite frank with you, is to just get . . . rid of them," he said. "If it turns out we have to tie up the system and jury-trial every one of [the cases], Iím OK with that."
Pruitt, though, said he doubted that jury trials would end the system. Out of 4.1 million cases filed in Fort Worthís municipal courts since 1999, only a little more than 400 have proceeded to a jury trial. In most cases, he said, defendants ask for a trial to delay the case, he said.
MIKE LEE, 817-390-7539