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Washington: Federal Judge Saves State Camera Program

March 4, 2010

Washington: Federal Judge Saves State Camera Program
US District Court judge rescues Washington state traffic cameras from class action challenge. 

Judge  John C. CoughenourA US District Court judge for the Western District of Washington on Tuesday threw out a class action lawsuit filed against nineteen cities operating speed cameras and red light cameras in the state. Although the case had been filed in the King County Superior Court and was based on state laws, lawyers for the cities and photo ticketing companies succeeded in having it transferred to a federal court.

Lawyers for affected motorists opened with the argument that the forms used to process a photo citation are invalid. Under state law, such tickets are processed as parking tickets, which require a certain type of technical approval which camera tickets do not receive. This, the lawyers contended, rendered the photo tickets invalid.

“Not so,” ruled Judge John C. Coughenour. “The code does not require a traffic camera infraction to be treated like a parking infraction in every single respect…. Although NOIs from traffic cameras are processed like parking tickets, the forms are to be drafted in compliance with rules for traffic tickets.”

Coughenour also defended the municipal practice of charging between $101 and $124 for each photo ticket, despite the state law limiting photo ticket fine amounts to no more than “the amount of a fine issued for other parking infractions within the jurisdiction.” Such fines are typically $20. Because parking in a disabled spot can cost $250, Coughenour reasoned that it was “more plausible” that the legislature meant photo tickets could be set as high as $250.

The camera opposition’s final argument was that cost neutrality arrangements between the private vendors and the cities violated the legislature’s intention to eliminate the financial incentive for vendors to issue more tickets. The lawyers argued that up to a certain level, the contracts pay vendors on a per ticket basis. The judge disagreed.

“The contracts contain ‘stop-loss’ provisions,” Coughenour opined. “These provisions allow the municipalities to defer payment until the cameras generate enough revenue to cover their expense. But they do not change the amount that the municipalities must eventually pay the camera companies… Under this system, it is the payment schedule, not the amount of compensation, that is based on a portion of revenue generated. The stop-loss provisions have allowed the municipalities to purchase traffic enforcement on a layaway plan, but not to change the price.”

In California, this has proven to be untrue in practice. The city of Ventura, for example, has escaped paying over $1.7 million to the Australian red light camera vendor Redflex Traffic Systems (view invoices). The terms of many contract provisions insist that the client city will “never” pay more than the amount of revenue generated.

Coughenour also insisted that when the city of Lynwood made a $5 per-ticket payment to American Traffic Solutions, it was a “service charge” and not payment “based upon a portion of the revenue generated by the equipment,” which is prohibited by law.

A copy of the ruling is available in a 50k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Todd v. Auburn, et al. (US District Court, Western District of Washington, 3/4/2010)

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