Motorists throughout Los Angeles will no longer be forced to be on the lookout for the rectangular devices that decorate stoplights at intersections in various parts of the city.
As of July 31, red light cameras are no longer recording photo images of drivers who are caught in the intersection between yellow and green lights and typically required to pay traffic fines upwards of $467. A July 27 vote by the Los Angeles City Council put the brakes on the program, halting it after seven controversial years.
“We were very worried that we would not be able to kill these red light cameras,” said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who had several in his 11th Council District, including four in Westchester and several in Del Rey and Mar Vista.
The council deadlocked 7-7 in June on whether to continue the traffic program or disband it before its July 27 vote. Earlier that month, the Police Commission recommended ending the traffic photo initiative.
Sherman Ellison, an attorney who specializes in defending motorists who have been cited for red light camera infractions, says he is officially asking the city to put in place an amnesty plan for those who have been ticketed but have not yet paid the fines.
“I praise the Los Angeles City Council for ending this blatantly unfair program,” Ellison wrote in a letter to the council. “It is a long-overdue first step in righting a wrong.
“An amnesty would relieve the uncertainly and anxiety of all Angelenos, who do not know what the consequences might be if they do not pay ‘pending’ photo tickets,” the attorney continued. “Even though payments have now been characterized by the city as ‘voluntary,’ it is not at all clear what this means.”
The Los Angeles County Superior Court has chosen not to actively enforce violators to pay for the infractions, one of the principal reasons why the council decided to discontinue the program.
Ellison said the there are two classes of motorists who should be considered for amnesty: those who received red light camera tickets but have chosen not to pay them, and motorists who have received an infraction and are in the midst of a trial or have the fines pending.
“We know the courts are not enforcing the payment of these fines,” the attorney noted. “And how would it look to the citizenry to pursue these fines? ‘We’re disbanding the cameras, but we’re going to force you to pay the fines anyway?’”
Rosendahl is against giving a reprieve to those who have been cited for red light infractions.
“I’m not in favor of that at all,” he said. “Just because the court has said that they will not enforce payment of the tickets doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t pay them because they were given (lawfully).”
Ellison says the cost to give refunds to those who have already paid would be prohibitive, so he is only seeking amnesty for motorists who still have their tickets pending. “I think it would be a show of good faith,” he said.
There is also a question of the revenue that the city will not receive, but Ellison dismisses that proposition.
“We know that governments always purport to need more money, but should that fall on the backs of the drivers who (the police) may or may not be able to prove that they violated the law?” he asked.
Rosendahl said the fines never recaptured the revenue that the city spent on the initiative. “By law, the state got the lion’s share of the fines,” he said.
Westchester resident Denny Schneider applauded the council’s decision on discontinuing the program. “I think that was the appropriate thing to do,” he said. “We were relying on technology with these cameras, and anyone who has owned a computer or a cell phone knows that they don’t always work properly.
“They’re only as good as the programmer,” Schneider added. “And we didn’t know a lot about how they were programmed.”
Mar Vista resident Ken Alpern thinks the program’s biggest problem was that it was based on revenue and not on public safety. “The tickets were woefully expensive and woefully under enforced,” Alpern said.
Ellison, who has won red light photo cases in appellate and federal court, said minor adjustments could make a big difference in reducing tickets and accidents.
“If the time between the changes between the red and yellow lights were adjusted by one second, that would solve a lot of problems,” he said.
Rosendahl said the Pico Boulevard and Bundy Drive location in West Los Angeles, just blocks north of Mar Vista, was an intersection that several of his Mar Vista constituents had complained about for months. Named as one of the Westside’s most dangerous intersections in 2007 with 64 accidents over a two-year period, the cameras were installed to prevent further collisions.
Schneider says he is ambivalent about Ellison’s idea of amnesty. “You don’t want to let someone go free if they’ve done something wrong,” he said. “But at the same time, we don’t have enough evidence that they have committed the violation with these cameras.”
Alpern, like Rosendahl, is not in favor of amnesty for anyone who has been given a red light photo ticket.
“If they indeed broke the law, then they need to pay the fine,” he said. “The question that I would ask anyone refusing to pay the fine is if there were a police officer at that intersection (instead of a red light camera), would they have been in violation of the law?”
Alpern is concerned that the loss of the photo cameras will give license to motorists who want to speed through intersections now that they will not be worried about a device snapping a photo of them and their car.
“I would hope that this will not give the green light to anyone to run a red light now,” he said.
Rosendahl noted that 60 percent of drivers who were cited for red light photo violations have paid their fines, another reason why he does not back Ellison’s call for a ticket reprieve. “The law is the law,” the councilman reiterated. “A lot of people have paid these very expensive tickets, so people who have not paid should not be given special treatment.”
Ellison said the council did the right thing by its constituents, even if Rosendahl is not supportive of his call for amnesty for those still facing the prospect of paying nearly $500 for running a red light.
“I think this is a spectacular result for the city,” he said.
Although the possibility of bringing back the photo cameras was raised by Councilman Bernard Parks, most members of the council seemed to be ready to move on to other topics. “I’m just glad that it’s over at this point,” said Rosendahl.
As of Aug. 1., red light camer at several intersections in Council District 11 had been dismantled.