Challenges to red-light cameras head to the California Supreme Court.
LOS ANGELES – For four-and-a-half years, Beverly Hills attorney Annette Borzakian has been fighting a $435 ticket she received after allegedly running a red light at an intersection that had been equipped with an automated red light enforcement system.
The evidence against her included digital photos taken by the cameras installed at the intersection. A traffic court commissioner found her guilty after a Beverly Hills police officer testified she was the driver depicted in the photos and the traffic light had been red for .28 seconds when she crossed the limit line. She appeared to have been caught red-handed by Redflex, the company which provided the cameras.
To some, fighting for so long over such a relatively minor offense might seem like an exercise in futility, the legal system gone mad. But Borzakian insists fundamental rights are at stake.
“This isn’t about a traffic ticket,” she told MintPress. “I felt like I didn’t get a fair trial, and the fact that I didn’t get a fair trial is very offensive to me.”
In particular, Borzakian explained, Commissioner Carol J. Hallowitz did not apply the rules of evidence and the U.S. Constitution in finding the police officer was qualified to authenticate the photos and maintenance logs from the Automated Traffic Enforcement System.
“I felt like she rubber-stamped these automated red light camera tickets,” Borzakian said.
In January 2012, an appeals court agreed with Borzakian, ruling that her rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment had been violated because the maintenance logs were not authenticated by a representative of Redflex.
“Without the proper testimony, the maintenance logs … were not properly admitted,” the court concluded. “Without these documents … there is a ‘total lack of evidence to support the Vehicle Code violation in question.’”
The California Supreme Court is now considering the cases of both Borzakian and Carmen Goldsmith, who was ticketed in March 2009 for failing to stop at a red light in Inglewood, Calif., based on evidence from a Redflex system.
“All of these people are being convicted and the question … is who can authenticate the photos?” said R. Allen Baylis, an attorney who specializes in defending traffic cases.
The outcome could have a major impact on the state’s traffic courts and the many cash-strapped California cities that depend on red-light traffic cameras as a source of revenue.
According to court papers, the city of Santa Ana’s ATES system alone generates citations to nearly 2,000 drivers a month, which at a cost of around $500 a ticket, translates into as much as $12 million a year in revenue.
To ensure traffic court defendants “are not subject to a double standard in terms of the administration of justice by traffic courts, this court should be particularly vigilant in holding the prosecution’s feet to the fire by requiring proper testimony in such cases,” Goldsmith said in a court brief.
Since 1988, when New York City became the first major city to place cameras on traffic lights to catch drivers who run red lights, hundreds of local governments around the country have implemented ATES systems, promoting them as a way to both enhance road safety and boost revenues. Redflex, which has been operating for more than 20 years, says it has installed more than 1,200 systems in more than 240 communities in 20 states. “Redflex has innovated photo enforcement technology that provides unsurpassed accuracy and reduces red light-related automobile collisions,” the Phoenix-based company told the California Supreme Court.
In California, the ATES intersections in 19 cities that use the system produce 977 red-light citations a year, or 2.68 per day, according to the League of California Cities. Baylis notes that unlike other states, California classifies red light camera tickets as moving violations and also allows unusually high fines. Including traffic school costs, he said, a ticket “can end up costing you pretty close to $600. That’s a very heavy burden on a lot of people.”
Borzakian, a former deputy public defender, had her encounter with Beverly Hills’s ATES system on June 3, 2009. She was cited under a California law, which provides that the limit line or intersection where a driver is required to stop may be equipped with an automated enforcement system. At her trial, she moved to exclude the prosecution’s evidence for lack of foundation, saying her constitutional right to confront witnesses had been violated because a Redflex technician was not present. But Commissioner Hallowitz said prosecutors “have never been required to have Redflex employees such as the custodian of records or the field service technicians present in court in order for the People’s exhibits to be admissible.”
Beverly Hills police Officer Mike Butkus, Hallowitz added, was “perfectly capable of authenticating the [maintenance logs] and laying the foundation for their admissibility.”
While one division of the California Court of Appeal overturned Bozarkian’s conviction, another division took a very different view of the law just one month later. In reinstating Goldsmith’s conviction for running the red light in Inglewood, the court suggested evidence from an ATES system was admissible not only absent the authenticating testimony of a Redflex technician — but even without the testimony of a police officer. “[T]estimony of the accuracy, maintenance, and reliability of computer records is not required as a prerequisite to their admission,” the court said.
The California Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeals of both Goldsmith and, in Borzakian’s case, of the city of Beverly Hills. It will decide “[w]hat testimony, if any, regarding the accuracy and reliability of the automated traffic enforcement system is required as a prerequisite to admission of the ATES-generated evidence.”
“[R]equiring live testimony by Redflex’s technician is particularly important in order to restore the public’s confidence in the integrity of the traffic court system,” Goldsmith argued.
In California, 44 cities, including Los Angeles, have recently stopped using automated enforcement systems amid concerns over whether they were cost-effective and improved safety.
“I think it’s an overreach of government,” a councilman in El Cajon told the San Diego Union-Tribune when that city canceled its program, which it was subsidizing to the tune of $62,000 a year. Redflex, meanwhile, has been buffeted by a $2 million bribery scandal that cost the company its largest contract in Chicago.
But both Redflex and its remaining California customers have urged the California Supreme Court not to adopt a “heightened” authentication standard for red light camera evidence.
“A decision by this court holding that ATES-generated evidence requires extra authentication [by employees or agents of the manufacturer] … would significantly increase the costs of prosecuting drivers who run red lights,” the League of California Cities said in a “friend-of-the-court” brief. “The many cities with ATES programs would be forced to reconsider the viability of those programs, even in the face of strong evidence that cameras at intersections reduce fatal accidents.”
Redflex has stressed that police officers in cities that use ATES systems receive “extensive” training in the “methods, function and operations” of the technology, and the cities oversee maintenance through audits of logs and regular observations of maintenance work. Red light camera systems “constitute a vital component in the state of California’s effort to improve traffic safety,” it argued.
Critics are hoping the Supreme Court delivers the “coup de grace” to the systems. According to Baylis, allowing evidence collected by Redflex and other contractors to be admitted under a “minimal” standard “has resulted in the trial courts treating red light camera case defendants as all but ‘guilty-until-proven innocent.’” In some cases, civilian police department employees have presented the evidence in court.
“There’s a long list of reasons why these camera systems should just go away,” Baylis told MintPress.
Motorists are continuing to challenge red light camera tickets, including Tayo Popoola, a deputy city attorney for the city of Los Angeles who has taken his case to the California appeals court after a traffic court judge found him guilty in July 2012 of running a red light in West Hollywood. The only witness against him was a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.
Borzakian, meanwhile, is patiently awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision. In any trial, she noted, “you have to follow certain requirements that are set forth in the Evidence Code and the Constitution. You can’t just hand the judge a photo or a video. You have to make sure it’s an accurate depiction of the scene.”
Confrontation Clause rights, she believes, should apply equally to traffic and criminal court defendants.
“As long as the law requires a foundation [for evidence], you can’t exclude an entire class of citizens [from that legal protection],” she said. “It’s just unfair.”