January 20, 2006

Red-light citations go uncollected because of processing gaff
By Soraya Gutierrez
Sentinel Staff Writer

A police department error in the processing of 134 red-light violations has delayed collection of the $381 fine per citation, a Santa Cruz County Superior Court official said Thursday.

As a result, no funds have been collected by the city to pay for the red-light cameras on 41st Avenue, installed in October, or make additional revenue.

The citation problem became apparent when a $10,495 bill for the cameras arrived and no citation revenue had been generated.

The cameras are designed to reduce the number of drivers blowing through red lights. The cameras, near the entrance to the mall, started citing motorists in November after a 30-day grace period.

However, the department did not know how to properly fill out forms necessary to cite the red-light violators, according to Alex Calvo, executive officer for the court. After watching videos of the red-light runners taken by the cameras, officers sent in citations to the county court. But they did not include all necessary information, specifically whether the alleged violators had a commercial driver's license, Calvo explained.

So the court sent the citations back to the department, Calvo said.

Chief of Police Richard Ehle, however, blames the court for the processing delays.

"The courts are not doing a diligent job of collecting the money," Ehle said.

Ehle said that if the court had updated the software for processing citations, the problem of not collecting the fines would have been avoided.

Calvo disagreed, saying the court keeps its software "constantly" updated.

The citations have since been processed.

The court processed the first 64 citations Jan. 13, and the second batch Jan. 17, for a total of 134.

"But most people haven't even received their citation at this point," Calvo said.

This is the first time red-light cameras have been introduced in the county, so it's not surprising for issues to arise, he said.

For a one-year test period, two cameras will monitor the intersection at the main entrance to the mall and at the entrance to a strip mall across the street, for a total of six lanes.

The area was selected because it has the second-highest accident rate in the city, Ehle said.

But after the recent collection problems, Ehle said he is not sure whether the red-light program should continue after its one-year trial period.

It's "obviously not worth it" if the program doesn't pay for itself, he said.

Program costs are intended to be paid for with violator fines. The program pays for itself when the department collects 70 citations a month, Ehle said.

The $381 fine includes a $170 penalty assessment. The city gets $150, and the rest goes to various state court programs, Calvo said.

A high-resolution camera photographs the license plates of vehicles that enter the intersection after the light turns red. A citation is sent to the home of the registered vehicle's owner, and includes four photos: the vehicle before and after running a red light, the license plate and the driver's face.

Calvo said the program is still in its early stages and it's too soon to decide if it should stay or go.

As of December 2005, approximately 35 cities nationwide are using photo-enforcement cameras, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Red-light running is estimated to cause more than 100,000 crashes and 1,000 deaths per year in the United States.

Michelle Green, a longtime Capitola resident, says the cameras are a good precaution and would like to see more of them at busy city intersections.

"It's good for drunk drivers," she said. "But some people don't like them if they're in a hurry."

Hank Scott, who lives in nearby Live Oak, says the cameras need to go because he thinks they're obtrusive.

"It's like having your mother watch over you," he said. "When I do something wrong, I don't like people knowing about it."

Contact Soraya Gutierrez at sgutierrez@santacruzsentinel.com.
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