Red light photo tickets likely to survive despite stop line issue, critic says

Red-light cameras at Denver intersections are widely reviled and provide dubious safety benefits according to a report from Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher. Yet in a first vote last night, Denver City Council voted 10-2 to retain the program throughout 2012. Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz isn't pleased by the outcome, which makes sense, since she's one of the "no" votes -- but she doubts the council will reverse itself in the future.

"I'd bet on it continuing," she says, noting that she was only joined by Councilwoman Susan Shepherd in opposing the measure.

In the beginning, Faatz admits that "I was very enthusiastic about the program, because they" -- ACS State and Local Solutions Inc., which has a $700,000 contract with the city to run photo ticketing -- "sold it as a way to check people who are running red lights. And that's certainly something I want to do. But in this case, they're also giving tickets to people who are simply stopping on the line, and that's a problem for me."

As noted by the Denver Post, drivers whose wheels wind up on the white stop line at one of four intersections outfitted with photo tickets in Denver are given a $75 fine -- the same amount as if they'd actually been caught running the light. Moreover, a technical improvement launched in April caused the number of tickets, and the attendant revenue, to skyrocket from $230,000 in fines between January and April to $1.3 million from May to October -- and Faatz's been told that 60 percent of the violations are of the white-line variety.

Faatz doesn't have a problem with people being cited for moving onto the white line, but only if an on-site cop would make the same judgement. "I don't believe an officer in the vicinity would give the ticket in some of these cases, where there are no pedestrians and no safety hazards present in the crosswalk at all -- no bicyclists, no children, no dogs. And yet some people have been given tickets in those cases. Some of my constituents have shown me the photos."

Page down for an example, and the rest of the story. I'm another example of this phenomenon, as exemplified by my 2008 post "Injustice! I get a mail-in ticket for not running a red light." As the photo shows, a pedestrian is in view, but along a sidewalk paralleling the road, not trying to cross it.

Additional complaints over this practice have gained steam over the past year or so, thanks to a report by Fox 31 so irritating to law enforcement types that the Denver Police Department staged a Twitter survey in which followers were asked whether it seemed fair compared to a 9News item on the same topic. In addition, Complete Colorado published a report establishing that 94 percent of tickets during a single day at 36th and Quebec (arguably the most controversial intersection where photo ticketing is conducted) targeted cars in the right lane, most of which likely crossed the stop line to turn right on red.

Faatz says she's gotten conflicting information about whether people are being ticket simply for inching over the stop line to execute a legal right on red. However, she's also learned that not every car pictured on a stop line is being ticketed. (The Post article maintains that just a little over half of the 80,000-plus photos taken during most of 2011 actually resulted in tickets being sent.) "Maybe they've gotten better at that since we started raising the issue over a year ago," she speculates.

Still, she believes the stop-line element of the process "erodes the public's confidence in our ability to fairly enforce the laws," in part because of the perception that the photo tickets are more about raising revenue than saving lives.

At an upcoming meeting, councilwoman Jeanne Robb plans to introduce a measure lowering the charge for stop-line tickets to $40, which Faatz says she'll support under the theory that "it's only half as bad" as the current system. But she'd prefer a system in which those who crossed the stop line when no hazards are in the crosswalk receive a warning first before any fines started accruing.

"I just want people to know that common sense rules," she says. "But maybe it doesn't."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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