Back-seat Driver: A case of mistaken identity

Nicole Washington of Merced was taken aback when she got a letter recently from the Department of Motor Vehicles saying her license would be suspended because she hasn’t paid a June red-light-camera ticket in Rancho Cordova. Washington hadn’t run that red light. Authorities had confused her with a woman of same name.

She and her mom got a copy of the ticket and tracked down the other woman from the address on it. They got the woman to sign a note acknowledging the mistaken identity, and took that to police. Police weren’t buying it, at least at first, said Melanie James, Washington’s mom.

So James launched a flurry of angry emails last week to city and county leaders. That did the trick. Rancho Cordova police say they took another look this week and, indeed, they’d ticketed the wrong person. They are reviewing what went wrong. “This obviously doesn’t happen very often,” said police Lt. R.L. Davis.

Washington’s situation is the opposite of what usually happens when a red-light camera flashes. New data from the Sacramento sheriff’s office shows that three-quarters of drivers photographed by city and county cameras do not get a ticket, including plenty of people who really did illegally run the light.

Most often – 20 percent of the time – police decide the photo quality isn’t good enough to adequately identify the driver. If the driver challenges the ticket, officers must be able to show the judge that the person in the driver’s seat looks like the the person cited. Sheriff’s Sgt. Todd Deluca said sun glare on the windshield is a typical cause of bad photos.

Often, the case is dropped because the face in the photo is clearly not the same gender as the person listed as vehicle owner. (Some police departments, however, will ask the car’s owner to voluntarily tell them who was driving the car.)

Amazingly, 21 people in the last three years got away with doing something perhaps even more stupid than running a red light: They ducked their head below the dashboard or covered their face so the camera couldn’t photograph them.

New video red-light cameras now catch drivers who slow down but do not come to a complete stop at a red light before making a right turn. The county hits those drivers with the same $480 ticket as drivers who go straight through the red. The county’s red- light statistics do not show how often the sheriff’s deputies, who review the video, let those drivers off the hook.

Deluca, who runs the red-light program for the county, told us he has instructed his reviewing officers not to ticket drivers on right-turn cases if the driver slows to about 2 mph before making the turn, and if there are no pedestrians or cyclists near the intersection.

The data, from 2010-2013, show that Watt Avenue-Fair Oaks Boulevard intersection has the most red-light violations of the 26 installations in the city and county. Second flashiest intersection is Fifth and I streets downtown.