Are red light cameras still legal in California? The answer is clouded, for the moment, thanks to two recent and contradictory appellate court rulings.
Law enforcement agencies, including those in Sacramento, continue to use the cameras, absent definitive word. That word may come in a bill passed by the Senate Thursday and now headed to the Assembly.
SB 1303 by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, would put tighter controls on camera use with the focus on safety, not government revenue-generation but it also seeks to bolster the legal underpinnings for red light cameras.
At issue is whether the images and data from cameras can be interpreted by courts as "hearsay." Hearsay a secondhand report about a statement someone else made is not admissable in court.
In February, a woman in Beverly Hills successfully challenged her red light ticket when she argued the photos represent hearsay. She argued that the officer representing the city in court was not qualified to say if the camera was working properly because he did not do the camera testing and calibrating himself.
Just weeks later, however, another division of the same 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in an Inglewood case that camera images including a 12-second video of the violation were evidence, not hearsay.
In that case, the court said the plaintiff had failed to meet her "burden" of producing evidence casting doubt on the reliability of the photos.
Simitian's newly amended bill attempts to clear up the hearsay question. A portion of his bill flatly says "the printed representation of computer-generated information, video, or photographic images stored by an automated traffic enforcement system does not constitute an out-of-court hearsay statement."
The Simitian bill also addresses something most drivers don't know: The owner of the car isn't required to pay the ticket if the photo shows someone else behind the wheel.
If law enforcement agencies can't identify the driver, they or their private camera vendors often send car owners notices that imply the owner must identify the driver.
Simitian calls that a snitch ticket. He is proposing a change in that "notice of non-liability" form. The car owner would still be asked to identify the person behind the wheel. But there is a box lower on the form that simply reads "None of the above." That is the box a car owner can choose to check if he was not the driver and doesn't want to identify the driver.
The driver in one recent red light camera case contended police could not ticket her because the rearview mirror hid a part of her face from the camera, including her right eye. The court disagreed. The camera caught about 80 percent of her face, the court said, enough to identify her.