UPDATE 10/19/2005: 9 months after the ticket, I got the appeal decision in the mail. I won!
Like many cities in California, San Francisco has been using Automated Enforcement Systems (a.k.a. “Red Light Cameras”) at many of its intersections for several years now. Although the stated purpose is (of course) for safety, the real reason is revenue. If you are the unlucky recipient of one of the citations in the mail (as yours truly recently was) then this website is for you. It explains your options and relates my experience with the San Francisco court system.
- The picture isn’t of you. The registered owner is who gets sent the ticket. If the picture is not of you, sign the attached affidavit saying that the picture isn’t of you. Don’t lie — you’re saying under the penalty of purjury that it’s not you in the ticket. DO NOT, however, TELL THEM WHO IS IN THE PICTURE. It’s their job to figure that out, not yours. Don’t rat out your friends and family.
- Pay it. If $371 is worth less to you than a lost morning in court, then just pay the ticket and move on. You may or may not want to do traffic school to keep the points from appearing on your license. While I’ve never done it myself, I hear the on-line version of traffic school is fairly painless.
- TrialÂ + Traffic school. This is probably the best option for most people. Go to the clerk.Â Post bail (the amount of your ticket) and plead not-guilty.Â Â Get a time for trial.Â SHOW UP ON TIME. When the court session starts, the clerk will allow you to have your fine reduced to only $50 if you take traffic school (with a $30 fee). For a total of $80, you’re done and the points are not added to your license. NOTE: If you’ve already done traffic school in the past 18 months, you’re not eligible to do it again. Sorry.
- Plead not-guilty. Lots of options here. You can skip the arraignment and demand your right to a speedy trial (within 45 days) by going to the clerk and posting the $371 bond. Sometimes, due to the short notice, the officer isn’t properly subpoenaed and won’t know that he/she needs to testify against you (this happened in my case). If the officer doesn’t appear to testify, your case is dismissed. Or, the officer could already be in court to testify against other people and will realize that she needs to testify against you too, and will testify anyway (yep, this happened to me).Or, you can go to your arraignment and plead not-guilty there. This gives you the chance to make pre-trial motions. This makes the process very drawn-out — expect your trial date to be many months in the future.
NOTE WELL: This takes a lot of time and will really try your patience. DO NOT EXPECT TO WIN. In fact, you should expect to lose. Sorry, but the trial court for traffic and other infractions in San Francisco assumes GUILT. Moreover, the red light camera systems are considered infallible and therefore beyond reproach. AGAIN, YOU WILL LOSE.
Don’t waste your time
- People often say that with traffic cases you should plead not-guilty and take your chances that the officer won’t show up. (If the officer doesn’t show up, your case is immediately dismissed.) I would agree with this strategy for all non-red light camera tickets. However, from what I can tell, the officers assisting with the red light camera prosecutions do not have normal police “beats”, and instead have a desk job, probably in the same building. This means they have a high liklihood of showing up.
- If you are planning to contend that you don’t run red lights, you are a safe driver, and you’ve never done it before, do not waste your time. (Most murderers haven’t murdered anyone before, either.) You will be found GUILTY. Your fine will be lowered to $300, but they won’t grant you traffic school. You are better off taking the $80 buy-off deal mentioned above.
- If you are planning to contend that the light was really yellow and the camera was wrong or broken, DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME. You will be found GUILTY. I promise. Don’t forget the the cameras are considered infallible by the trial court judge. Even if it was broken!
Argue the law
While the cameras themselves might be considered infallible, the city has errored in the way they are set up and operated. You should expect to LOSE at trial even if you object to the evidence on these grounds. HOWEVER, these MAY help you get your ticket overturned in appeal. That’s right, if you want any chance of winning, you will have to APPEAL. This takes a lot of time and energy. If you’re fed up and willing to put in the time it takes to appeal, then go ahead and plead not-guilty. Otherwise, don’t waste your time and take the $80 buy-out deal.
What to do:
- Buy the book Fight Your Ticket in California from Nolo Press. Make sure you get thee one specifically for California.
- Go to the Hall of Justice (850 Bryant St.) with a copy of your citation many weeks before your trial. Parking hint: You can park on 6th street after 9am. so show up at 8:59 and you’ll have all the free parking you want. Otherwise you might have to pay the garages that charge $6 for the first 1/2 hour. Go to the 5th floor, turn right at the hallway, and go to the end. This is the Police Legal department. Tell the friendly officers (really, they have always been very friendly in this office) that you want to fill out an “Informal discovery request”. They will give you a short form. Fill it out, and the City’s “Photo prosecution packet” will be sent to you. This is exactly what they will present at trial, which is always a good thing to have beforehand.
(For a good overview of many of these issues, read Highwayrobbery.net).
- The city has not property issued warning tickets as required by 21455.5. CVC (California vehicle code) 21455.5 allows cities to put up Automated Enforcement Systems if they follow the guidelines set forth in the statue. One of the statutes is that “Prior to issuing citations under this section, a local jurisdiction utilizing an automated traffic enforcement system shall commence a program to issue only warning notices for 30 days.” While most cities (I believe San Francisco is included) took this to mean warning tickets only needed to be issued 30 days before the first camera in a city, a recent court ruling in Southern California mandated that EACH camera is succeptible to the 30-day rule. At trial, I suggest asking the prosecution’s witness (the officer) if they issued only warning tickets for the first 30 days of YOUR camera’s operation.
- CVC 21455.5 also has very strict requirement with respect to intersection signage. 21455.5(a) basically says the city has to label an AES-enabled intersection from all sides. There is one exception: if they choose not to label the intersection from all sides, then it can “posts signs at all major entrances to the city, including, at a minimum, freeways, bridges, and state highway routes.” Note that San Francisco DOES NOT post the required signs on major city entrances like bridges, freeways, and state highway routes. Instead, they choose to label major freeway exits. This is not compliant with the letter or the spirit of the law. While some AES-enforced intersections ARE labeled with signage in all direction, many are completely un-labeled meaning the city is falling back on the fact that they think they’ve labeled the “freeways, bridges, and state highway routes”. If you bring this up at trial (as I did) expect to LOSE. By bringing it up at trial, though, you can use it in your appeal.
- Interesting pre-trial motions. Present them at your arraignment. They probably won’t work, but might be useful ammunition during your appeal.
- Try to subpoena the camera’s “source code”. The camera is more than a camera. It’s a computer. You have the right to question your accuser in court. Your accuser is this computer. You should have the right to know exactly how it is programmed. If this motion is granted, you will probably never see the “source code” (it’s a trade secret) and therefore I would expect the prosecution to drop the charges. It’s worth a shot. It will probably help your case if you know how (ie have the credentials) to interpet any “source code” that you might receive.
- The camera is disallowed under California’s “Speed trap” laws. This is a very interesting one, and will take further research. CVC 40801 forbids speed traps in California. “What does this have to do with Red Light Cameras?” you might ask. Well, let me tell you. CVC 40801 says “No peace officer or other person shall use a speed trap in arresting, or participating or assisting in the arrest of, any person for any alleged violation of this code nor shall any speed trap be used in securing evidence as to the speed of any vehicle for the purpose of an arrest or prosecution under this code.” CVS 40802 says “A particular section of a highway measured as to distance and with boundaries marked, designated, or otherwise determined in order that the speed of a vehicle may be calculated by securing the time it takes the vehicle to travel the known distance.” What does this mean to you? Well, the Red Light Computer decided to take a picture of you because you were headed for the intersection at a rate of speed high enough to assume that you were going to go past the ‘stop line’. It knew this because there are coils of wire in the pavement in each lane that are a set distance apart. It calculated your speed by securing the time it takes your vehicle to travel the known distance. Sound familiar? CVC 40801 now says they can’t use this evidence to prosecute you. But they did anyway, and now you have grounds to fight it. I didn’t try this angle, but I have a feeling you’ll LOSE if you do. But I want to hear about how it went, so write to me.
I’d love to hear from you. Write to me at aren /at/ thesandersens dotcom with your experiences.