Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Plague of Red Light Bandits

California executed Caryl Chessman at 10:00am on May 2, 1960, thereby killing, it thought, the Red Light Bandit. Chessman, an avowed petty criminal, was convicted in 1948 of placing a flashing red light on his car, and then impersonating a police officer, to pull over women and sexually assault them. Kidnapping and sexual assault were capital offenses then.

The Red Light Bandit was somnolent for 6 decades in California before a new, virulent form of red light banditry spread across the globe. Australia, England, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Singapore, and the United States are afflicted. Cities and towns as diverse as Buffalo, Cedar Rapids, Charlotte, Irvine, New York City, and communities through California and Texas have caught the fever, not to mention Arizona and Virginia. 439 communities in 26 states and the District of Columbia have embraced red light bandits.

This Red Light Bandit is a camera, digitized and computerized, that snaps photos of cars driving through red lights, employing the famous "California rolling stop," or making illegal right turns on red without stopping.

Governments love the cameras, ostensibly to promote safety on the road, but are seduced by the revenues. Los Angeles is reaping $400,000 monthly just for the right turns on red, for which the fine is $381. With fees attached, it’s over $500, not to mention that it constitutes a moving violation on your driver’s record. Insurance do not like to see that. Running a red light is a $446 fine.

Some communities are so entranced by the revenues that they change the rules of the game. The normal yellow light lasts 4 seconds, but these communities lower it to three seconds to increase the number of tickets. We used to label those communities “speed traps.”

The new addition is to add speed censors to the cameras, thereby ticketing “speeders.”

Governor Schwarzenegger, as part of his new budget proposal for California, a state which is at least $20 billion in the red, proposed installing speed sensors, assessing fines of $225 and $325, and earning the state about $500 million annually. Going 1 mile over the speed limit, let’s say 36 in a 35mph zone, would result in a $225 fine, plus additional fees.

The Governator’s proposal is stuck in neutral in Committee. Many states and communities, when citizens get to vote on these cameras, vote them down. Other states, such as Texas, have barred municipalities from installing speed sensors on their cameras, but they can continue with the red light cameras. In addition, the State of Texas can install the speed cameras, if it wishes, on its highways.

Public response, not including voting down the cameras, has been to result in some instances to vigilante justice. The cameras have been shot out, stolen, or otherwise damaged. The response to the equipment failures is to quickly repair (within a day) or replace the unit. Compare that to the response time in filling potholes, which can last years in some communities.

The processes afforded Caryl Chessman at arrest, arraignment, and trial fall far short of the Due Process standards imposed by the Warren Court in the years after his execution. Many believe that he was denied even the rights that existed in 1948.
Be that as it may, he had more rights than those caught by the red light bandits.

One of basic constitutional rights is to confront our accuser. How do you cross-examine a camera, much less one installed and operated by a private company which has a vested interest in maximizing fines, since these companies receive a large percent of the fines. We can cross examine the arresting or ticketing officer, and if the officer fails to appear, have the charges and tickets dropped. We cannot question or cross examine an inanimate object, one which lacks discretion.

Consequently, almost every pays without question these tickets.

But wait until the referendum!

(By way of disclosure, I have not yet received the dreaded red light letter, but since I live next to Irvine, which has a number of these cameras at intersections I drive through, it’s only a matter of time.)

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