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California: City Refunds $1.4 Million in Illegal Traffic Camera Tickets

February 10, 2010

California: City Refunds $1.4 Million in Illegal Traffic Camera Tickets
Every red light camera ticket issued in South San Francisco, California is invalid. 

South San Francisco MayorThe city of South San Francisco, California last week admitted it had issued red light camera tickets under an ordinance that had never been properly ratified. As a result, every ticket, worth $446 each, that the city allowed American Traffic Solutions (ATS) to issue since August 2009 was invalid. Over 3000 citations and accompanying license points will be refunded.

On January 27, the city council voted to rectify its mistake and prepare to renew the contract with ATS that expires in June. The council portrayed the ratification issue as a technicality, but the city faced a far more serious error in that its contract contained so-called “cost neutral” language allowing ATS to be paid on a per-citation basis. The San Mateo County Court has ruled that such provisions were unlawful (view decision). The city has also quietly re-adopted a contract amendment removing this explicitly illegal provision.

Although the ratification may be a technicality, several members of the public told the council that the city and its vendors were exploiting technicalities to ticket drivers, as the vast majority of citations involve right-hand turns on red or cases where the vehicle entered an intersection a fraction of a second after the light turned red.

“I have not yet gotten a red light violation for a right turn, but I know quite a few people who have,” local resident Ginni Tilden said. “I find this very intimidating, along with all the people I talk to. It seems just a matter of time before we all get one…. But we were told these were for getting people blatantly running through a red light.”

The city’s focus on technicalities has ensured the program would have no impact on safety, as verified by preliminary accident statistics at the city’s two camera-equipped intersections.

“Our data right now is mixed,” Vice Mayor Kevin Mullin admitted. “One intersection, I would argue, is safer, another intersection may not be… It’s now creating some traffic issues in that intersection so we might need to look at the timing of the lights and some other mitigating factors to deal with the unintended consequences of the policy.”

Another resident questioned the purpose of the camera program, citing the website highwayrobbery.net as a source of information. Mayor Mark N. Addiego disagreed, but found a point of agreement with critics.

“There is a poignant statement on this website that I’d like us all to hear and consider,” Addiego said. “‘Enforcement of laws which are widely perceived as unreasonable and unfair generate disrespect and even contempt toward those who make and enforce the laws.'”

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