Red-Light Camera Updates
Are those yellows too short? Are the license plate shields illegal? Will a class-action suit force the city to refund millions in fines?
By Marisa Demarco
Drivers have said it since they began racking up big bills from the red-light camera program in 2005: "Those yellow lights seem awfully short."
KKOB 770 AM radio talk-show host Jim Villanucci thought so, too. So he timed them Tuesday, June 12, before city officials came on his show to talk about red-light cameras. A study by the Institute of Transportation Engineers recommending yellow lights be slightly less than 5 seconds long at larger intersections caught Villanucci's attention. He brought a stopwatch out to the camera-staffed intersections along Montgomery at San Mateo, Wyoming and Eubank. He clocked the yellows at 3.1 seconds. A listener who owned a video recorder with a chronograph accurate to one 1,000th of a second timed them on Tuesday, too. He got 3.125, according to Villanucci.
"Wherever they have the red-light cameras, the yellow lights are timed at 3 seconds when they should be closer to 5," he says. "That's causing more rear-end collisions and more tickets."
Mark Motsko, the spokesperson for the Department of Municipal Development, says the light at Montgomery and San Mateo has always been 4 seconds long, before and after the cameras were installed, and before and after Villanucci's show. "We lose sight of the fact that people have died at that intersection," Motsko says. "The city is not going to go in there and short the yellows, because it's not safe, and the whole camera system is about safety."
In addition to the 4-second yellow, there is a 1.2-second delay when all the signals at the intersection are red, says Motsko.
Villanucci's five guests, including Traffic Engineer Kevin Broderick, responded to Villanucci's inquiries by saying the lights were all closer to being 4 seconds long. "That's still too short," says Villanucci. "They were lying." The following morning, Villanucci says the lengths of the lights were changed; now those Montgomery intersections were clocking in at 3.8 seconds. Upon further questioning, says the radio host, "They claimed the lights were always that way. I had listeners calling in from all over the city saying there were crews out there working on the lights."
Villanucci says he really believes the yellows have been shortened to maximize the revenue. He's not against the cameras otherwise. The roads are safer because of them, he says. "If the yellow lights are timed properly, people aren't getting tickets they don't deserve."
Plate Blockers Legally Murky
"We haven't seen anything that's obstructed it, short of somebody physically obstructing the view," said Albuquerque Police Department spokesperson John Walsh in January about products that claim to render license plates illegible to cameras. They're a waste of money, he said ["From Prying Eyes," Jan. 25-31]. But 500 citations have gone out for obstructed plates in the past few months, according to the Albuquerque Tribune. The products, sprays and covers aren't illegal—exactly.
There are statutes in the Motor Vehicle Code against obstructed plates. You can get a ticket for an illegible plate--a license plate must be visible and free of foreign matter, and a plate must be visible from 100 feet away at night. Walsh has changed his tune. Smoked covers that people put over their license plates and prism covers are the problem, he says. He stands by his charge that the spray-on camera-blocker products don't work. "They spray on clear, so there is no illegal entity to that."
Joe Scott with PhotoBlocker, a company that sells license plate shields, says the product "contorts the numbers gently without making it too obvious." Competitor Super Protector obscures the plate from any angle, he says, and those must be the covers getting the tickets. Not a single customer has called Scott to complain about his products, he says. "It's only at a certain angle that you can't make out some of the numbers. The law never said your license plate has to be visible at 10 degrees, 15 degrees, 20 degrees."
Whether a plate can be considered obstructed is up to the discretion of the officer, according to Phil Sisneros, spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office.
City Attorney Bob White isn’t worried. “The issues remain the same,” he says. Nevermind that lawyer Richard Sandoval’s lawsuit arguing the program is illegal was given class-action status by District Judge Valerie Huling.
That’s fine by White. In his mind, the class-action status only prevents hundreds or thousands of red-light camera lawsuits the City Attorney’s office would have to fight. “We’ve already had a half-dozen lawsuits involving this. What a class-action lawsuit does is says anybody who potentially has a claim like this, we’re going to litigate it.”
Success, he says, would be the end of all the lawsuits.
Sandoval says everyone who’s paid out a red-light camera fine should get their money back if the program’s determined to be illegal. “If it’s an illegal fee collected in an illegal manner, then I think the only remedy is to reimburse everyone,” he says. That’s more than $6 million. But there’s a ways to go before refunds are discussed.
Sandoval says the advantage of a class-action suit is that he can advance the interest of everyone in a case where it doesn’t make financial sense for an individual to appeal. The fines are usually around $100 a pop. The only remedy in place is to file a suit in State District Court, Sandoval says. That costs about $200. “No one’s going to do that.”
At this stage, anyone is eligible to be included in the suit, but the court hasn’t established any deadlines for adding people to the case. First, the court must decide whether the program is valid. Over the next 30 days, written arguments will be submitted to Judge Huling. Regardless of Huling’s decision, Sandoval predicts the case will go to the Court of Appeals or the State Supreme Court.
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