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 V.16 No.8 | February 22 - 28, 2007 

For the Record

Red Light Camera Followup

Jeff Drew

We got a couple of good questions from readers on the red-light camera feature ["No One Likes a Ticket," Jan. 25-31]. We also got some answers for you.

If you get a bunch of camera-issued tickets, can someone seize your vehicle?

John Walsh, Albuquerque Police Department spokesperson, says no. "There is no seizing of vehicles for the red-light program," he says. "There hasn't ever been."

Say my husband is driving a car registered to me and gets a first-offense ticket for $100. Then a few months later, I get snapped by the cameras. Even though it's my first offense, will my ticket be $250, the fine for a second offense?

Initially, yes. These fines are issued according to plate. If a car is caught running a red twice in two years, regardless of the driver, the citation would be for a second offense. Walsh says that would be the perfect example of an issue to take up with a hearing officer.

If my plates are from out of town but I'm caught by the cameras running a red light, would that get me a citation?

Yes.

What's up with those red-light camera bills in the State Legislature this session?

The state Senate unanimously passed a bill last week that would give drivers more warning when a light is about to turn red. A "flashing yellow beacon" positioned far enough before the light would alert motorists that the light would be red by the time they enter the intersection, thus causing a snapshot and a pricey citation. The measure passed Thursday, Feb. 15, then headed to the House Transportation and Public Works Committee. Sen. Bill Payne, who presented the bill, called the traffic cameras "money-generating traps."

Another measure sponsored by Sen. Michael Sanchez would require the fines from traffic cameras to be the same as those issued by a law enforcement officer. This bill has not yet been voted on in the Senate, though it made it out of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee alive and now resides in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sanchez says in a news release that it's important to make sure "people who are cited for traffic violations based on the use of cameras or other traffic monitoring devices aren’t treated any differently than other drivers."

Assistant City Attorney Greg Wheeler says it doesn't make sense to mess with a system that's working. The accident rates at intersections have dramatically declined, he says, so it's clear the $100 fine is a deterrent. "I don't think it's a question of how much money is collected. It's a question of how much money comes out of people's pockets."

Whatever happened to those guys suing the city over the traffic cameras?

Lawyer Richard Sandoval calls the fines from the citations issued by red-light cameras "unlawful." If he can get the people who've paid such citations certified as a class for a class-action lawsuit, he'll petition to "represent all those people who've paid this unlawful fine and attempt to get them their money back," he says.

Sandoval is challenging the red-light camera program. State District Judge Valerie Huling in early December wouldn't issue the temporary restraining order Sandoval sought to halt the traffic camera program. The suit named three plaintiffs who'd received citations and alleged the city threatened to cart away vehicles if fines weren't paid.

Since the city hasn't seized any vehicles, Huling ruled the plaintiffs don't face a real threat.

Sandoval's suit also charges that the city has created its own court since citations are reviewed by an unelected hearing officernot a judge. There are specific places where funds collected for violations of ordinances are supposed to go, like, say, when they're collected in Metro Court. "The city is bypassing all of that," he says. "They've created their own internal court, and they're keeping all of the money."

Assistant City Attorney Greg Wheeler disagrees. "A person's given a hearing if they want to challenge the violation the same as they're given a hearing under the old system in Metro Court," he says.

Sandoval is sure the case will go to the Court of Appeals, regardless of rulings this year. It will probably be another 60 days before the court decides whether to certify the plaintiffs as a class. Sandoval doesn't anticipate a final ruling on his cases for about 60 days, either. Wheeler says he knows Sandoval's going to pursue it, but since rulings have been favorable for the city so far, he expects similar things from the Court of Appeals.

Attorney Paul Livingston has filed two other suits in the red-light camera arena ["Seeing Red," Oct. 26-Nov. 1], and when all's said and done, he'll probably have a third. The first case was a straight appeal on a hearing officer's decision about a citation. State District Judge Geraldine Rivera on Jan. 27 ruled against Livingston. According to the ruling, Livingston's suit charged there wasn't enough evidence to prove a violation, that the violation should be criminal under the jurisdiction of Metro Court and not a civil one the city can punish, and that due process had been violated.

He filed the second suit on behalf of busdrivers who'd been ticketed and had their pay docked automatically for the fine. Like Sandoval, Livingston's waiting for the busdrivers to be certified as a class of city employees in a class-action suit.

Livingston's gotten about 15 calls from people who want to be part of a more general class-action suit. That's next in the pipeline, he says. "I'll take five to 10 of those names and put them down as plaintiffs."

In his mind, the main crux of the argument is the faulty idea that there's some kind of public nuisance created when a car or driver runs a red light or speeds. That nuisance concept is part of what allows the city to call the citations civil offenses and not criminal ones. "The public nuisance ordinance is a fantasy of Mayor Chavez and the city administration as far as I can tell," Livingston says.

Both lawyers say there might be a day in the future when they will have to join forces, perhaps in the appeals process. No steps have been made in that direction yet, they add.

 

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