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David Bloys - News For Public Officials
Billions of dollars and your civil rights are at stake in class action suits and criminal charges filed against city official’s and government contractors who profit from red light cameras in the U.S. and Canada. Running red lights is risky business. Profiting from the controversial cameras may be even riskier for city officials.
The lawsuits allege that municipalities across the continent are partnering with private companies to trample your rights.
The latest in a series of traffic camera lawsuits to become a class action is against Albuquerque New Mexico where the city has collected fines from 50,000 car owners since March of 2005. Last week Judge Valerie Huling ruled a lawsuit against the city is a class action . If the city loses, the court could order the return of $7 million in fines they should never have collected.
The lawsuit contends that since ticketed drivers can’t appear before a judge, their right of due process has been taken away.
“I think some of these opponents need to take a big dose of personal responsibility,” Mayor Martin Chavez complained to reporters. “I’ve never heard more cockamamie excuses as to why it’s okay to run a red light.”
“You can't put a price on people’s right to access a court, a legitimate court, one that’s established by the Legislature, one where judges stand through elections,” plaintiff's attorney Rick Sandoval said. “You can't put a price on that.”
The fine for triggering a red light camera in Albuquerque is $100 the first time a driver is caught. The second offense is now $200 and the third violation is $300. The cameras take a photograph of the vehicle and license plate and the ticket is sent to the registered owner of the vehicle, regardless of who was driving.
At almost the same time Judge Huling was ruling the Albuquerque case a class action, South Dakota Circuit Judge Kathleen Caldwell heard arguments in a class-action lawsuit against the city of Sioux Falls and Redflex Traffic Systems, a company contracted to photograph vehicles passing through red lights at one Sioux Falls intersection. I.L. Wiedermann of Sioux Falls is fighting the camera enforcement on behalf of himself and 20,000 vehicle owners who also have received $86 tickets since May 2004.
Aaron Eiesland, Wiedermann’s Attorney argued before Judge Caldwell that Sioux Falls must refund $1.7 million worth of red light camera tickets it has issued. The city and its red light camera vendor countered that anyone who paid $86 is not entitled to his money back.
Eiesland cited the recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision striking down red light cameras as illegal as well as a Minnehaha Circuit Court ruling that found it unconstitutional for a city to provide no appeal from its rulings on the facts of a case. There is no appeal allowed from a city hearing officer decision in a red light camera case.
Bill Garry, representing the city, said that when the thousands who paid their fines did so, they waived their right to contest their tickets. Garry claimed that only Wiedermann and one other man who took his appeal to an administrative hearing officer and then to circuit court should be permitted to fight their tickets, he said.
Just two months ago the Minnesota Supreme Court delivered a unanimous decision striking down the legality of red light cameras in that state. The high court upheld last September's Court of Appeals decision that found the city's program had violated state law.
The highest court in Minnesota ruled that the Minneapolis photo ticket program offered the accused fewer due process protections than available to motorists prosecuted for the same offense in the conventional way after having been pulled over by a policeman. The court argued that Minneapolis had, in effect, created a new type of crime: "owner liability for red-light violations where the owner neither required nor knowingly permitted the violation."
According to a judge in Davenport Iowa, the city's speed and red light cameras violate Iowa law as well. In a ruling issued in January 2007, Scott County District Court Judge Gary McKenrick said that the city doesn’t have the authority to adopt an ordinance that conflicts with the state motor vehicle code. According to the lawsuit, the fine generated from the violation "is merely a revenue generating measure which has been and continues to be illegally imposed and collected from the plaintiff and all others similarly situated and such collection is void and should be refunded."
The city may have to refund everyone who has received a ticket from the cameras. There have been more than 10,000 red-light and 20,000 speed tickets issued by the Davenport camera systems.
Following the Iowa ruling, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox declared February 14th that the use of red light and speed cameras within the state is illegal. Cox found that because state law established red light running as a criminal violation, any local ordinance declaring such a violation a civil matter would be "in conflict" with the law.
Technical problems that stem from faulty equipment may also bring lawsuits against municipalities. In March, WTOP Radio reported that problems with Washington D.C.'s red light cameras and speed cameras could jeopardize the District’s photo enforcement system. More than half of the city's 50 cameras were either not working or uncertified, one high ranking D.C. official blamed the contractor and told WTOP there were problems with "the performance of the previous contractor" -- which was Affiliated Computer Services or ACS. The problems are potentially keeping the city from collecting millions in fines. And, the city might be liable for tens of thousands of speeding tickets that could be challenged in court. ACS recently came under scrutiny for its handling of the District's parking meters and faces criminal bribery charges in Canada.
Bribery and corruption charges
ACS faces criminal charges of bribing city officials after a lengthy Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation into the 20-year, $90-million photo enforcement contract. The high-ranking Edmonton police officers are facing charges of accepting bribes from ACS . The charges allege the officials accepted bribes from the Dallas based company in return for recommending the company’s system. If convicted, the officers could face maximum sentences of 5 years on each charge. A preliminary hearing for ACS is scheduled for September 1, 2007.
More than just your photo
Thousands of motorists in Savannah Georgia were shocked to learn late last year that more than their photo was taken by the city’s red light cameras when the city's web server accidentally published private details about them over the Inter. The photos had been cross indexed with confidential information contained in the state's massive databases.
A citizen noticed the problem when he searched for a name on Google and found the photos, name, and date of birth, address and sometimes Social Security Numbers of camera ticket recipients in the results.
According to a letter the City issued to the 8800 victims, "At this point we have no evidence that confidential information was read, downloaded or used in any manner. No one has reported any problems to the City of Savannah, or any other state or local authorities." But this may not take the city off the hook for damages driver's suffered as a result of the careless breach. Two years ago a Florida court decided a similar case.In 2005 the Florida 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that individuals suing under the Drivers Privacy Protection Act can qualify to receive monetary damages even if their identities had not been stolen. The damage is in the breach, not the possibility of future illegal use. The court ruled, "Damages for a violation of an individual's privacy are a quintessential example of damages that are uncertain and possibly unmeasurable”.
More Cases Against Red Light and Traffic Cameras