There is still a prevailing mentality that technology is infallible — especially when it comes to red light camera tickets. After all, isn’t a photograph of a robbery suspect more reliable than witness identification?
The problem is that there are a lot of assumptions made about the accuracy of devices and the circumstances under which images and data are captured. At first blush, the red light camera seems to be unimpeachable evidence that a motor vehicle failed to come to an adequate stop. But more and more, people are realizing that it may be worth mounting a challenge when issued a red light camera ticket.
How Red Light Cameras Work
Even though red light camera systems use pretty sophisticated components, the system design is quite simple, consisting of cameras, sensors, and a computer system. One or more cameras are mounted on poles and are angled toward the intersection in order to capture images of the vehicle from different angles and directions. When the sensors are triggered after the light turns red, the cameras snap a picture of the license plate — sometimes the driver and part of the vehicle as well. Officers use the footage to identify the registered owner of the vehicle. A traffic violation ticket is then sent to the vehicle owner with the appropriate charge, fine amount, court date, and information about how to contest the ticket.
Interestingly, most of the red-light cameras in California are installed and operated not by the municipality, but by contracted third-party companies that usually have quotas to meet. Critics argue that this may create a reason to issue unwarranted tickets. Notwithstanding court challenges in the name of due process, courts have upheld the use of red-light cameras.
The burden of Proof in Red Light Camera Cases
As with other traffic violations, the officers have to prove certain elements in court. With photo radar, for example, the court needs to know that the device had been properly calibrated, among other things. In red light camera cases, the prosecution must prove that:
- There were appropriate camera warning signs posted.
- The camera and lights were timed properly.
- The images captured adequate information about the driver and vehicle.
- The defendant was properly notified of the statutory deadlines to contest.
In California, the driver at the time of the infraction is liable for the ticket, not the registered owner of the vehicle.
What most laypeople don’t realize is that when technology provides strong evidence about a violation of the law, the rules of evidence require that the court be satisfied with the accuracy and reliability of the device and its output instead of blindly accepting the results. That is why you cannot assume that fighting the ticket is automatically a “lost cause” simply because there is a sophisticated piece of technology, like a red light camera, involved.
Challenging a Red Light Ticket
Vehicle owners who receive a red light camera ticket are entitled to review the footage. Depending on the municipality, you may be able to do this online; otherwise, it’s simply a matter of making an appointment with the officer. Information about the process should appear on or with the ticket, including how to pay the fine under different circumstances. All of these streams result in you providing information — whether you were the driver and whether it was a company car, for example — that would otherwise have to be established in court during a trial. As such, it is always highly recommended that you contact a motor vehicle/traffic lawyer as early as possible to discuss how you should approach your case.
Do not feel pressured to pay the fine right away. You can pay the fine at any time prior to trial. In fact, there are a number of steps that occur before to going to trial. The court date on your ticket is an arraignment date, at which you tell the court if you will plead guilty or not guilty. If pleading not guilty, you will be setting the actual trial with the traffic clerk. Also, confirm the deadlines for serving the prosecution with a “request for production” of the evidence they plan to use against you.
Considerations for a Potential Defense
The following is meant for general educational purposes; it is not legal advice. Every case is different, and there are highly technical aspects of defending against a red light camera ticket that requires an understanding of the law, statutes, and legal cases. It is in your best interest to speak to a lawyer about your case before deciding whether you have a viable defense and whether to contest the ticket.
Did the prosecution provide you with the evidence they plan to use against you? As a defendant, you are entitled to see and assess all the evidence against you. This includes all footage, photographs, witnesses, police notes, and other documents. If you have properly served the prosecution a “request for production” and you do not receive the materials in the legally allotted time, you may ask the court at the trial date to dismiss your case. Similarly, if you served the prosecution but they refused to provide the legally acceptable acknowledgment of service, you may ask for a dismissal. It would not be fair to allow the prosecution to avoid providing you the evidence by claiming you didn’t ask for it.
Note that lawyers know exactly what to request, and how to justify asking for particular items, based on the facts of your case.
Does the evidence support what the prosecution says? Does the photograph clearly depict the driver and can you be clearly identified as the driver? Is the license plate clearly visible and readable? If the evidence is ambiguous in any way and can create reasonable doubt in the court’s mind, you should be found not guilty. If the prosecution says that you were driving but the evidence is blurry or the driver’s head was turned away so that you can’t clearly discern the facial features, the prosecution hasn’t proven its case.
Are there any technical defenses in your case? For a challenge to the accuracy and reliability of the red light camera system to succeed, you definitely need technical expertise. It will not be enough to suggest in court that the camera or sensors must not have been working or that there wasn’t time between the yellow and red light for you to safely come to a stop. In all likelihood, the officer will testify that the devices and lights were properly calibrated and working. You would likely have to revisit the intersection in question and take pictures and notes about the presence or absence of signs, how clear road markings were, and how long it takes for that traffic light to go from yellow to red. There could be some complex calculations that must be made in support of your position. You will also need to be knowledgeable about the particular red light camera system model and manual before you can tell whether it was working properly.
How long did it take for your case to get to trial? In some extraordinary cases, a court may dismiss a case if you did not get your “fair and speedy trial.” The idea is that your ability to present a proper defense is compromised if there is an undue delay in bringing your case to court. For example, witnesses may forget important details, or officers may be transferred to another jurisdiction. A lawyer is best suited to determine whether or not this is a viable defense in your case. But, what may be considered an inordinately long delay in one jurisdiction may be considered normal in another. Whether there has been an undue delay depends on factors such as the complexity of the particular case, the resources of that courthouse or system, how populated that jurisdiction is, which side caused the delay, and other considerations.
Are you able to confront your accuser? The Sixth Amendment gives you the right to confront your accuser. Obviously, you cannot drag a red light camera or a traffic light into a courtroom and cross-examine it. That’s why the prosecution will have an officer on the stand to testify as to the accuracy and reliability of the red light camera system and traffic light, based on calibration records and the like. That is the witness to be cross-examined. If there is no such witnesses, the red light camera image(s) cannot be entered into evidence and used against you.
Did you run the red light out of necessity? This defense is not something to simply invoke. Even if you did commit the traffic infraction to avoid a serious accident or harm to yourself or someone else, you will have to adequately prove it in court. This is where having witnesses may make or break your defense. If there is someone who can support your testimony — a passenger who was in the vehicle or a bystander on the street, for instance — you will have a higher probability of success. The more independent witnesses to these circumstances, the better.
If you are the only one who can testify to these urgent circumstances (or your supporting witness is someone close to you), the court will weigh the credibility and reliability of the testimony and whether it supports the other elements detailed in the evidence. Again, if you committed a traffic violation to prevent greater harm to yourself or someone else, it is highly recommended that you hire a lawyer. They will know what kind of evidence needs to be gathered to support this claim.
Should I Contest a Traffic Ticket Even If I Think I Will Go to Trial?
In general, absolutely. Depending on the charges, being found guilty of a traffic violation can still have serious ramifications, whether you’re looking at a steep fine, demerit points, or suspension of your driver’s license. For people who need their vehicles for work, a conviction may affect their livelihoods. If a traffic violation causes a motor vehicle accident or an injury to a pedestrian, it is even more important to carefully look at your options, because you may also be looking at a potential lawsuit.
At the very least, a traffic conviction may have some impact on your car insurance premiums or coverage. Until you formally contest the ticket, you will likely not have access to the evidence the prosecution plans to use against you. What if you discover that the evidence was actually inadequate and your case should be dismissed? There is also a possibility that the officer will not show up on the day of trial and the prosecution and court will have to dismiss your case. This is not something you should bank on, but it does happen, especially if the original officer has since changed jurisdictions or positions.
At a minimum, contesting a traffic ticket buys you valuable time — time in which you can:
- Speak to a motor vehicle lawyer and properly assess whether you have a defense to the charges.
- Find out whether it is possible or viable to negotiate to plead to a lesser violation (for example, one that carries no demerit points).
- Save up money to pay the fine.
- Make arrangements if you expect your driving privileges will be suspended.
If you immediately pay the fine, you are pleading guilty to the violation as charged, and giving up your right to a trial or to negotiate with the prosecution for a better result. Sometimes cases will settle this way right before the judge walks in.
Do I Really Need a Lawyer for a Red Light Camera Ticket?
Many people assume that because a traffic ticket tends to have lighter penalties than, say, a criminal case, traffic court must be “easy.” In reality, some areas of motor vehicle law are highly technical and require a high level of legal expertise to navigate. Even in traffic court, the rules of evidence (which may not make much sense to non-practitioners) apply, meaning that testimony and exhibits must be presented and entered the proper way to be considered. Arguing the law in submissions to the court requires knowledge of the important cases in that particular area of law. A lawyer will also have a much better idea of what kind of evidence will be most compelling to the court. At the very least, having the peace of mind that someone is looking out for your best interest is often worth it.
There is no reason to go it alone, even if it is a traffic violation. At Quirk Reed, LLP, we offer an initial consultation absolutely free of charge. Contact us with your questions and book an appointment today.