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Vs Traffic Court

February 23rd, 2017. My psyche had been flinching from this date for five months.

It seemed so reasonable last August. A month earlier, in July, I’d opened a letter informing me that I’d been charged for “failure to stop at a red light” on May 22 at the intersection of El Camino and Menlo, in Menlo Park, California. Bail or penalty: $490.

What.the.hell. There was video. I looked at it. I’d made a right turn onto Menlo Avenue. My brake lights were on. Leave it at that. What I wasn’t doing, however, was going straight through an intersection, which is what most people mean by the term “running a red light”.

I only open snail mail two or three times a year, so the ticket I didn’t deserve was already overdue. But it was a mortal lock that I wasn’t the first pissed off person that California, or even Menlo Park, had insulted in this fashion, so I started looking for precedents. In less than an hour I quickly found this site, which convinced me I could build a good case. I wrote a letter requesting the charge be dismissed.

The form letter I received from Naegeli Court Reporting in response invited me to make my case in court for an additional $50. I spent some time mulling the potential outcomes. Maybe judges understand how ridiculous this is and soften the charge. Or hey! Maybe I could make a good argument and talk my way out of it. At least I’d feel better for trying.

And so, I ponied up the bail and an extra $50 to make my case. After a couple delays, the court date was set for February 23rd. In the week leading up to the trial, I spent 20 or more hours finding more evidence, thinking of the best way to structure the argument, finding supporting data, making printouts.

But any confidence in my efforts evaporated after ninety minutes sitting in the courtroom.

For the plaintiffs, showing up is half the battle. Some people request a trial just in case the police officer can’t make it (which happens much less than it used to), as the failure to show results in a dismissal. Once the officer of record shows up, many defendants then change their plea to no contest.

Of course, my cop was there. I’d been expecting that. Any photo enforcement system has to have a dedicated resource for court cases. My cop was older than a typical patrol officer: a real sweetheart, thin, a bit frail, very gentlemanly. So while the court is going through the other business, this charming, softspoken, friendly guy hunted down his red light cases, called them aside one by one, showed them the pictures, reminded them of the videos, and very gently did his best to persuade them that their cause was hopeless. He was extremely effective; of the four people there with red light tickets, three changed their minds and pleaded no contest for a slightly reduced fee When he asked the fourth (me) to consider the evidence I said, neutrally, “Yes, I’ve seen it”. He was a bit taken aback, but just handed me the pictures and smiled, without attempting to dissuade me.

On that particular day, almost everyone in the room got lucky or changed their pleas to get the discounted penalty. I had to sit there for nearly an hour, watching everything move at an amped speed. No one had any real interest in the meaning of the law, ambiguities, anything that might give me a hint I had a chance. All the plans I had for my case seemed increasingly ludicrous.

Suddenly, the only other trial that day ended abruptly: no interpreter.

The moment had arrived.

My little trial had more in common with TV-show law than I expected. The gentlemanly cop and I sat down at a table with microphones, right in front of the judge (who I think was actually a commissioner, but I called him Your Honor). The bailiff stood by at the ready. The courtroom was almost completely empty.

The judge nodded first to the gentlemanly police officer, henceforth known as GC, who read through his case: the length of the yellow light, the camera’s maintenance, provenance of the evidence, availability, notification, and so on.

The judge turned to me. “Do you have any questions?” I took a deep breath, vowed to be fearless, and plunged in.

(Note: the next part discusses the Vehicle Code for Section 21453, here , which outlines the penalties for failure to stop at a red light. Subsection a is used to issue all tickets for failure to stop at a solid red light. Subsection c is used to issue all tickets for failure to stop at a right turn arrow. Subsection b? Well, that’s what I’m arguing about.)

I said, “Well, I’m just wondering why I’m being charged under subsection a, which is clearly intended for drivers going straight through a red light. Subsection b is for those who turn right on a red light. Now, I’m not commenting on my guilt or innocence on that point because I wasn’t charged. But since I didn’t go through the red light, I think it’s obvious that I am not guilty.”

GC was on firm ground here, and smiled. He would have patted me on the head if it weren’t against the rules. “See, now, you’ve misunderstood the law. Subsection a is for all stops. Then, if and only if, the driver comes to a full stop but fails to yield to pedestrians or oncoming traffic while turning right, then and only then will he be charged under section b.”

“I don’t think I’ve misunderstood the law. The wording is ambiguous, but hey, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that if intent is clear, wording can be…vague. It’s completely obvious that subsection b is intended to apply to all right turns.”

GC was a little sterner, now. “No. If you notice, subsection a also mentions turning at an intersection.”

Me: “But it’s the law’s intent. I have a memo written by Mark Stivers, as well as a newspaper article in the Sacramento Bee confirming that this represents his opinion. Stivers was a staffer for the Assemblyman Kevin Shelley, who sponsored the original bill. He is a clear guide to the legislative intent.” [I read this part aloud.]

Still me: “So the lawmakers had written subsection b to apply to right turns. All right turns. They may have neglected to chop out the phrasing in subsection a. But it’s not flatly contradicted by the text, Your Honor. A reasonable interpretation of the wording could be that the driver is supposed to stop, just as described in subsection a, but is then allowed to proceed.”

The judge leaned back. “Does plaintiff have a response?”

GC was a bit flummoxed. He had clearly planned on common challenges to the citation and we were now way off the reservation. “Let me read the law again to you. That’s how we apply it.” He read it again.

I shrugged. “I understand how you want to apply it. But the legislative intent shows that your application is incorrect. However, I have another question. What happens if it’s a red right turn arrow? You’re not supposed to go at all, right? It’s just like a straight through.”

GC nodded, on firm ground again. “That’s subsection c.”

Me: “Yes. So when the driver comes to a red light, the law has three separate cases. In two cases, the driver must stop for the entire length of the light.” I paused, feeling myself fall into teacher mode with a tough student. “You want to argue that stopping for the entirety of the light is indistinguishable from the third case, in which the driver fails to stop completely before turning right.”

GC: “Yes. That’s what the law says.”

“So being able to go through a red light is no different from not being able to go through a red light. How does that make sense?” I reached for another document, secretly amazed I was able to put on my case. “Let’s look at the uniform penalty code, okay? I happen to have the relevant sections handy. Subsections a and c incur a penalty of $490. Section b charges $238.”

Still me: “Notice the wording. “Vehicular Responsibilities” for subsection a and c. Doesn’t it make sense, in a way, that they would apply to the case when a driver can’t move so long as the light is red, no matter what? And then subsection b, the driver’s responsibilities with a right turn–stop, make sure no one is coming, and then go. And if you fail to stop, or scare a pedestrian, that’s bad, but not as bad as running straight through a light and t-boning a poor driver on a green.”

GC was, by this time, displeased. It seemed pretty clear he wasn’t used to these trials taking so long. “The failure to stop is the problem.”

I nodded. “Yes. So you are saying that section b is just for someone who stops completely while turning right and then ignores a pedestrian. If the person stops and turns left onto a one-way street while ignoring a pedestrian, there’s no problem. Meanwhile, someone who fails to stop at a right turn with no one in sight is the complete equivalent of someone who charges straight through an intersection into oncoming traffic.”

GC: “That’s right.”

I reached for another document. “Your honor, taken in combination with the memo, I believe it’s clear that section b is intended to cover people who fail to stop at a red light OR stop but fail to pay heed to a pedestrian. Let’s take a look at the stop sign code because–as we are taught in driver’s ed and traffic school–a right turn on red is the full equivalent of a stop sign.

I swiveled my chair helpfully over in GC’s direction, sharing my document, confidence fully returned, sharing my copy.”Wow, look at that. According to your interpretation, failing to stop before a right turn on red is not only as dangerous as careening straight through an intersection but just as bad as sneaking around a closed train gate. Meanwhile, a failure to stop at a stop sign is just $238–the same as subsection b.”

I would have liked to pause, but I was worried the judge would stop me. “The stop sign law just says the driver has to stop. It says nothing about proceeding without checking for cars or pedestrians. So if I stopped at a stop sign and then scared a little old lady who was taking too long to cross the street, is that running a stop sign or failure to yield? All the failure to yield penalties are $234. So would it be reasonable to think that police officers give the same citation for failure to stop a stop sign as, say, for stopping at a stop sign then scaring an old lady who was taking too long to cross the street? Of course, Menlo Park doesn’t put cameras at stop signs.”

GC, by this point, had had more than enough of my impertinence. “Stop signs are irrelevant to this case. As section a is written, it applies to everyone who fails to stop.”

:…except as provided in subsection b.” (tiny bit of snark in my voice.)

GC has become distinctly less gentlemanly. “I’ve explained why that doesn’t apply…”

Me, all lawyer-like: “And I’ve shown that the legislative intent plus a reasonable interpretation of the text as well as a consistent application of the Uniform Penalty and Bail requirements shows it does apply. When does Menlo Park apply subsection b, by the way?”

GC sighed. “When the driver stops, then proceeds before it was safe.”

To this day, I can’t believe my big gotcha made it into the trial: “When does Redflex send over a cite for a violation of subsection b?”

Silence. GC had, I believe, suddenly, terribly, figured out where I was going.

Me, with yet another document: “Here’s a copy of Menlo Park Business Rules for Redflex, the company running the back end of the revenue scheme. As far as I know, these are current.”

GC sniffed. “I am well aware of the business rules.”

“Sure, but maybe your honor would like a look, particularly at page 3, which lays out the citation procedure.

Me: “Your honor will note that the procedures spell out the correct statute for subsection a and subsection c. But there’s no (b)!!”

I leaned back. “So, Officer, I’m trying to see how this works. The camera captures every car entering the intersection while the light is red. Say driver stopped at a red light and then carelessly turned right, nearly crashing into a mom and a stroller. This would be a clear case of subsection b as you define it. But a Redflex tech would see no violations of subsection a or c, and thus the driver’s behavior would go unpunished. Meanwhile, every driver who brakes and slowly turns right at an intersection is hit up for $490. Or…perhaps that’s the point? It seems that Menlo Park only cares about violations that provide a decent amount of money.”

GC shook his head vehemently. “The red light camera program is about safety.”

Well, look at that. He’d played right into my next point. “Are you sure? Here’s an email from Sharon Kaufman, who until she retired this year was the police officer running the red light program. Recently, Menlo Park ran a study to determine whether or not a new camera installation would be, well, worth the money.

Still me: “When Officer Kauffman learned of a decline in violations, she worried that behavior would change and violations would “drastically” decline.”

I handed the email to GC, while speaking to the judge. “Notice, your honor, she presents a drop in citations as a bad thing. But the express purpose of the program, in fact, the required purpose of these programs is to change behavior. Instead, her question shows clearly that she wants to keep those citations rolling.”

Now, for the first time in several minutes, the judge stepped in. “But they are trying to change the law. In fact, they got a law through but it was vetoed. I understand your position that this was the intent of the law, but they haven’t been able to change it yet.”

I was ready for this. “Actually, your honor, there was another attempt after Governor Schwarzenegger’s veto and there’s one in play right now. The middle one made it through two or three committees, then just..stalled. No real reason given. This one is stalled, too. Possibly because the analysis of its fiscal impact indicates that even a 10% reduction in subsection a citations would cost $7.5 million. All data shows, in Menlo Park and elsewhere, that most of the tickets written are for right turn violations. The revenue loss might be considerably greater than that. Given the state of the state’s coffers, it’s reasonable to assume California wants the money.”

The judge again, trying to be reasonable: “But don’t you see, they are trying to fix it.”

I took a deep breath again, trying to figure out if it was a good sign or a terrible one that the judge was arguing for GC. “Your honor, my position is that the attempts to fix the bill are unnecessary. Our knowledge of the law’s intent, as I’ve documented, plus a reasonable interpretation of the text and the consistent pattern of the uniform penalties, makes it clear that the legislative intent was to give a lesser fine to people who failed to stop before a right turn.”

Judge: “But others don’t see it that way.”

I leaned forward, trying to be as unsnarky as possible. “The police and governments don’t have any incentive to acknowledge that the law is being used unfairly. What other redress is there than the courts? What remedy do the people have, if government officials refuse to use a reasonable interpretation of the law? Why can’t I argue that this is a reasonable interpretation, given proof of intent and evidence of other similar penalties? ”

The judge sighed. “Plaintiff?”

The plaintiff was no longer the cheerful, slightly wispy GC he was when first we met. The plaintiff wasn’t happy at all. He read the law into the record one more time.

Judge: “OK. I’m going to have to review your documents and think about this and come to a decision.”

My heart thumped. This was as much of a win as I could hope for. “Can I give you my documents?”

The bailiff stepped in. “The judge will review your documents, but the plaintiff has to review the submissions.” GC was already halfway out the gate, but he wasn’t particularly gentlemanly anymore. Downright cranky now, was he. My documents got a perfunctory runthrough, but he paid particular attention to the Mark Stivers memo.

I got the distinct feeling that my nice, friendly plaintiff had never before left the court without a guilty verdict. Regardless of what the ultimate decision was, I’d put a serious dent in his day.

Me, I went tearing out of the courthouse in search of a Starbucks, so I could write up the good news in an email to a friend. The account above is slightly modified version of that email.

I live a low-crime life in a high-income world, so my personal interactions with the police have all involved their role as revenue agents for the state, when one of them (or a camera) has randomly selected me to cough up inordinate amounts of cash for offenses that almost every driver commits. Fortunately, I’ve got enough money to avoid highway cleanup or license suspension for failure to pay, but there are low income people much more careful of the laws than I am who have suffered those fates.

Traffic laws are supposed to be about safety. But many of us feel strongly that they’re mostly about money. And in that short trial, I was able to make that point well enough to force a judge to think about it, leaving the cop to feel a little bit angry and helpless. The Populace Struck Back. Time well spent.

I got the verdict less than a fortnight later, but left it sitting in the ever-accumulating stack of unopened mail. I wanted to enjoy the feeling of victory, whether or not I’d won. So the envelope sat on the stand in my living room for five months.

But July came around again, my car registration was due, and it was time for my periodic slog through the snail mail. The pile was large, and I deliberately didn’t seek out the verdict, just let it come across the transom.

But you know what wasn’t in the big pile of mail? A refund of my $540 bail. So now I have to remember to ask the court for my money.

Coda:

I couldn’t have done this without the highway robbery research. I’m writing this in part to pay the debt forward. Buried in the trial discourse is the how-to and the supporting data. Jerry Hill has been trying to change the law, but I think he’s taking the wrong approach.

Mark Stivers wrote his memo years ago, but no one has really publicized it. As I mentioned above, the Supreme Court of the United States has utterly ignored a plain text reading of a law. Rather than demanding the law be changed, it accepted intent and context.

Similarly, given the clear intent of the Assembly to exclude right turns and the likelihood of the law not making it out of Committee without the change, given the context showing that the dangers of running red lights are caused by those that don’t involve a turn and clear pattern of penalty amounts for similar offenses, the people of California should simply request that courts find them not guilty of violating 21453(a) if all they were doing is failing to stop before turning right.

I hope others give this defense a shot.

Coda II: After 45 minutes on hold and a 3 minute conversation, it took less than a week for this to arrive. I decided to break with my usual routine and checked daily until it did.)

Feature Image by Dave Dugdale


Guest Author

Michele Kerr lives in California, for her sins.

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49 thoughts on “Vs Traffic Court

  1. You should stop at a red light. Even if you are turning, you should stop.

    People that don’t stop for red lights are a danger to people like me that are trying to cross intersections as pedestrians.

    I don’t want to hear excuses for what you think the loopholes in the law are. You should stop.

    If you don’t stop, you are deadly menance. You put me and my family in danger. My daily life is much more at risk from people like you than any ISIS or Korean dictator.

    If you don’t think you should stop at red lights, you deserve whatever bad fortune may fall upon you.

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    • I (mostly) agree with this. As a bicycle commuter I am hyperaware of idiot drivers all around me. At the same time, I am also of the opinion that American roads are overregulated, and I think that tends to make drivers sloppy about obeying signals and signs. I will freely admit that I am a practitioner of the Idaho stop at signs, and I’ll roll through lights where I can’t see any traffic in the other direction, covering my brake. I do my very best to not be a hindrance to traffic.

      On the other hand, if you as a driver violate my right of way, especially if I think it’s in a way that might cause me injury, you just may suffer some damage to your car as I inevitably pass you.

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        • I’m willing to give drivers some leeway in circumstances such as these. In Chicago, bike lanes have kind of been shoehorned into the streets, and this tends to disrupt automobile traffic patterns.

          I love drivers that honk at me. I got really good at ignoring noises like that when my kids were small and crying themselves to sleep. The 60 second delays in their trips are some of the great joys of cycle commuting.

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    • I’m both with you and not with you on this.

      Drivers should stop at red lights. “It’s an offense that almost every driver commits” carries exactly zero weight. Almost every driver commits offences that put human life at risk on the regular, and they should bloody well stop. If they need to pay fines on the regular to get it through their heads, so be it.

      Alsotoo though, the law should be enforced as it was intended by legislators, to make people safer. Treating traffic laws as revenue sources – and in particular enforcing them specifically in ways and places where it has the least chance of changing behaviour, in order to keep the ticket revenue coming (in my city, an accusation frequently and mostly erroneously leveled at the police) – that’s not right either. It turns the law into a way to rob from the poor and give to the rich, because tickets are disproportionately issued to people who can least afford them; and it deliberately and cynically continues the endangerment of human life, just to allow politicians to continue being too cowardly to set taxes and services in a realistic balance.

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      • Also I was a bit troubled by the phrasing “So if I stopped at a stop sign and then scared a little old lady who was taking too long to cross the street,” in the OP. The hypothetical little old lady was absolutely not taking “too long”. She was taking exactly as long as she needs. If you drive too close to her, you were too fast, not her too slow.

        It’s frankly a bit scary. It seems to be a common attitude that the person sitting in a padded chair in a climate-controlled box that can be accelerated with massive force by a tiny action of their calf muscle, is somehow the victim when someone using entirely the power of their own muscles, at the mercy of the elements, takes the time they need to move their inconviently unmotorized human body out of the right of way God gave to those who own automobiles.

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    • “You should stop at a red light. Even if you are turning, you should stop. ”

      I agree.

      What’s “stop”?

      Oh, “stop moving”? For how long–do I just need to do the barest-minimum check of my progress or do I need to be at “all vehicle motion has ceased” for at least five seconds? And how do I tell when I’m not moving–do I need to check against some visual reference outside the car, or is “speedometer indicates zero” sufficient? And who verifies all this–is there some definition of “stop” that the camera operator is using that I need to meet, and how can I be sure the operator is confident to make that determination? I’m pretty sure there aren’t training courses for this sort of thing.

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  2. I got a right turn on red from a camera once, but the fine was much less and the loopholes unavailable. I’m still not a fan of how traffic cameras are employed.

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    • Oscar,
      Around here “traffic cameras” mean something different. They’re actually used to, quelle surprise, control traffic. As in, IDing when you have cars waiting, when you have pedestrians waiting, and making sure that the lights stay greener than otherwise.

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  3. Here are two interpretations of what happened:

    (1) You were fortunate enough to have a judge prepared to listen to your argument and give it real consideration. Traffic court judges are more likely to rubber stamp the ticket: You can appeal it to a higher court, at which point it is not that judge’s problem. You got a higher grade of traffic court judge.

    (2) The last thing they were going to do was set this up for an appeal to a court high enough up the ladder to set a binding precedent. Once you established that you had a potentially real argument there wasn’t a chance of a conviction. You get your acquittal and their problem goes away with only the loss of that $490.

    Take your pick. Personally, I find the idea of a traffic court judge finding a legislative intent argument compelling to be, well, not compelling. Were there nothing else going on, he would rule according to standard procedure and let the higher court sort it out on appeal, thereby providing guidance for future cases. My guess is that such guidance was the last thing they wanted.

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    • I have a friend who, living in Arizona, got a speeding ticket by robot camera. He went to the courthouse on his court day to pay the fine, and the cashier told him, “you should really go to the courtroom”. She was insistent, so he took her advice, and found that the judge he had been assigned found all such tickets unconstitutional and dismissed his case with no fine.

      Obviously, the state isn’t going to appeal this, either, since they don’t want to find out.

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  4. I’ll have to add this to my list of badly-written statutes. What the judge and officer clearly wanted to do was interpret the statute the way my state’s right-turn-on-red is written. Our statute starts by saying that when presented with a red light, you must stop and wait for the light to change. Then it gives two exceptions that are explicitly to the waiting part (we also have a left-turn-on-red for a particular combination of one-way streets). Here, failure to come to a complete stop is always a violation.

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    • You made me look. I just pulled up the statute in Maryland and it is the same way as for you. Thinking about this from a legal drafting perspective, this seems the sensible way to go about it. It is even intuitive. The right-turn-on-red is, after all, an exception to the general rule.

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  5. I have taken, and am about to re-take, traffic court training in order to serve as a judge pro tem for the Los Angeles County Superior Court. Traffic training is the highest area of need for the temporary judge program, and, on a related note, traffic court is widely considered among judicial officers to be the least desirable judicial assignment. So it’s not surprising that the judicial officers considered the best at their jobs by their peers tend to exercise their ability to pick assignments away from traffic.

    That’s not to say that a traffic judge is either unqualified or uninterested, mind you. It’s to say the very best judges are likely to wind up elsewhere.

    In California trial courts, there are several tiers of judicial officers that a litigant like our author might encounter. Most self-represented litigants do not distinguish between them in any meaningful way, and the fact of the matter is that the clerks and the system discourage careful examination by the litigants of who exactly is sitting on the bench. That may not, on balance, be a particularly bad or meaningful thing — a full, Governor-appointed-and-then-elected-by-the-voters Judge technically outranks a Court-appointed Commissioner (who can sit in any Superior Court) or a Court-appointed Referee (who generally only sit in specialty courts like traffic or delinquency), and especially in traffic and small claims you’ll often encounter someone like me who volunteers one day or a half day a month tho serve for free. But they all have the same academic and experiential qualifications and they all take the same classes to learn how to do the job. If you appear before me, you can be confident that I have been practicing law for the requisite number of years (ten) and been formally educated the same way a “real” Judge has been with respect to the procedure and substantive law.

    Reading between the lines here, it looks to me like our author appeared before a Commissioner on her first two trips to court. And I have a bone to pick with this Commissioner. It’s evident that our author took time to learn nomenclature and paid close attention to what was going on in her case, so I’m taking her at her word about the precise terms used in the proceedings.

    “Plaintiff” refers to the party who initiates a civil action, the person who comes to court and complains that someone else, the defendant, did something that harmed them. That word is really not accurately applied to the police officer who is there to authenticate the state’s exhibits. That officer is not a prosecutor, that officer is not even a lawyer.

    Accordingly, that officer does not represent the People of the State of California; he lacks authority to negotiate plea bargains. The Commissioner may very well have discretion to allow that officer to respond to testimony offered by a defendant about the facts of a case. The Commissioner really ought not to solicit the officer’s opinions about the law. The officer is not a lawyer and even if he holds a juris doctorate he is not acting in the capacity of a lawyer. He is authorized and empowered to offer evidence without the guidance of a prosecuting attorney present in court, and that’s it.

    A judicial officer asking a police officer to interpret the law and, at an even higher level of complexity, interpret the legislative history of a law to divine its actual intent, and even more problematically, to do so in the capacity of an advocate for a conviction is inappropriate. That’s properly the role of a prosecuting attorney, in this case Stephen Wagstaffe, the District Attrorney of the County of San Mateo, or one of the Assistant or Deputy District Attorneys working under his supervision.

    It may be of interest to you that red light camera enforcement has been successfully challenged twice now, though not on the grounds that seem most obvious to me — the Confrontation Clause. The real problems have come up with regards to how the evidence generated by the robots and supporting electronic systems are authenticated, and whether or not the witness is competent to testify that the system is properly calibrated and scientifically reliable. The leading case regarding authentication is People v. Goldsmith (2014) 59 Cal.4th 258, and the leading exemplar of undermining the reliabilty of the automated enforcement mechanism is People v. Rekte (2015) 232 Cal.App.4th 1237. The company that has the contract for most, if not all of the municipalities in California, Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc., is to my observation vigilant in training its people, and the police officers of the agencies it has on contract, to adapt to changes in the legal landscape.

    So here’s the interesting issue I’ve got now. My friend lent his car to his adult son, who got his picture took by Redflex. Since the car is registered to my friend, he’s the one who got the ticket in the mail, with the pictures of his son driving the car. He has the option to sign an affidavit saying “Nope, that’s not me,” and the ticket gets dismissed, but the form states that he must identify the driver in his affidavit in order to get a dismissal. I can find no legal authority that, absent a subpoena, he is obligated to identify his son. So I think his best shot is showing up to the arraignment and asking that the ticket be dismissed in the interests of justice, because it’s obviously not him driving the car and he has no obligation at the arraignment to implicate a third party.

    Finally, it’s also a new policy, adopted at the urging of Governor Brown, that you no longer have to post your fine as bail in order to secure your right to a trial. So for a new ticket, there’s no chasing down the court clerk to get them to cut you a check and give you your money back. I consider this evidence that at least some actors within the system really do think that traffic laws are about safety first, and revenue second. (I promise you that safety and not revenue is my priorty as a judicial officer. I cannot speak as to the attitudes any of my colleagues or the full-time bench, or perhaps more importantly as to the attitudes of the court staff who do the bulk of the work in that system.) I also consider this newer policy to be more consistent with the concept of due process than the former system: you have a right to a trial, and a right means it’s something that you get from the state without penalty or cost to yourself. Requiring that a person pony up money lest they be defaulted makes trial a privilege, and one available disproportionately to those with financial means.

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    • I can find no legal authority that, absent a subpoena, he is obligated to identify his son.

      It seems to me that the authority is that if this matter goes to evidentiary hearing, the State will ask the dad on cross-examination who was driving the car and the judge will allow it. So if the purpose of the affidavit is to conveniently resolve common evidentiary issues, it reasonable to have the affidavit address the common issues.

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      • But here’s the trick: he can move for dismissal at his arraignment, and he’s not under oath at his arraignment. So at his arraignment, he isn’t compelled to offer any testimony at all (unless the question comes from the bench). As I wrote earlier today, I believe it’s improper for a police officer to “play prosecutor” and ask questions of the defendant at the trial.

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        • Sounds like you have the procedural angle covered and unlike Kolohe above, I don’t have a problem with procedural / technical victories. I personally wouldn’t do this for my kids, and I think they know it, but that a moral point, not a legal one.

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    • 1) In So. Carolina, the arresting officer acts to plead the case in a bench trial in misdemeanor cases. Hard to believe that would be the only jurisdiction.

      2) Missouri (under AG Koster) did away with stuffing the public purse via traffic tickets.
      Meanwhile, Illinois struck the part prohibiting enforcement for monetary purposes from its statute.

      3) Also, the Illinois statute requires that a driver “can” turn safely, but there is no requirement the driver actually do so.

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  6. To this day, I can’t believe my big gotcha made it into the trial

    This part of the post made me smile and nod in satisfaction.

    My own personal experiences with traffic court have all ended the same way: showing up early, sitting as the judge calls out a list of names (occasionally punctuated with “bench warrant”), and making it to the end of the list without having been called. At that point, the people who haven’t been called all get asked to go into the hallway where a person with a clipboard is standing and they have us all sign next to our name on the list acknowledging that our matter has been dropped.

    (This was during the period where I had a peace sign bumper sticker on my car and I did stuff like “get pulled over for not using my right turn signal at a stop sign” or “failed to sign back of registration” and it was always the SAME FREAKING COP. As soon as I got rid of the peace sign, I stopped getting pulled over.)

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    • I got a ticket, and the judge ended up being the guy that teaches family law in the paralegal program.
      He made me write a motion to dismiss– extra homework.
      I could have walked out of that place with a date with a prosecutor if I’d wanted to. Too many other things going on.

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  7. It’s funny, I’ve gotten minor traffic tickets (39 in a 30-1 point), from cops, who have then showed up, even after I’ve requested a revised court date, but had cops never show for major tickets (79 in a 55-5 points).

    But the assumption that most cameras are about revenue generation hold up. Otherwise, all those cameras around schools would be turned OFF over summer break wouldn’t they? Gee, what a surprise they aren’t?

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  8. OK, trying again.

    Kohole: You should stop at a red light.”

    Indeed. Find the specific quote where I argued otherwise.

    Dragonfrog: Also I was a bit troubled by the phrasing “So if I stopped at a stop sign and then scared a little old lady who was taking too long to cross the street,” in the OP. The hypothetical little old lady was absolutely not taking “too long”. She was taking exactly as long as she needs. If you drive too close to her, you were too fast, not her too slow.

    Indeed. The phrasing was deliberate. It would, indeed, be a bad thing. And yet, that failure to be considerate and safe at a stop sign would always be a lesser penalty than failure to stop at a red light before turning right.

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    • Kohole: You should stop at a red light.”

      Indeed. Find the specific quote where I argued otherwise.

      What.the.hell. There was video. I at it. I’d made a right turn onto Menlo Avenue. My brake lights were on. Leave it at that

      This right here.

      You are an expert wordsmith. You know exactly what you said and why you said it.

      You clearly have no remorse or regret for creating a dangerous situation – even if fully within the letter of the law.

      I just hope your laxity and selfishness behind the controls of several hundreds of kilograms remains always an issue soley confined to the courts, and not a price paid in blood.

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      • “You clearly have no remorse or regret for creating a dangerous situation – even if fully within the letter of the law.”

        If your actions are “within the letter of the law”, you did NOTHING wrong legally. Full stop. If the citizens of Menlo Park believe this action referenced is not safe, or hell, if they just don’t want it done, they can pass a law, or revise an existing one. I’ll not address any non legal topics, because it’s very clear from the OP that the law is solely about revenue generation NOT safety.

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    • I’m confused. Is your argument that your brake lights being on is equivalent to stopping? Because that just isn’t true.

      Regardless of the legal details and court proceedings, if you failed to come to a complete stop and fully evaluate your surroundings before turning right on red, you acted unsafely.

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  9. Oscar: I got a right turn on red from a camera once, but the fine was much less and the loopholes unavailable. I’m still not a fan of how traffic cameras are employed.

    As described in the story, California legislators made running a red light a severe penalty. All the data shows that dire stats that justified making the penalty more severe all involved going straight through a red light. So the intent was to exclude turning right on red. The legislators thought that subsection (b) involved turning right on red, and didn’t realize that (b) was just about stopping then going when unsafe.

    If your state charges the same penalty for running a red light as it does for running a stop sign, then there’s no issue to challenge.

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  10. Michael,

    What the judge and officer clearly wanted to do was interpret the statute the way my state’s right-turn-on-red is written. Our statute starts by saying that when presented with a red light, you must stop and wait for the light to change. Then it gives two exceptions that are explicitly to the waiting part (we also have a left-turn-on-red for a particular combination of one-way streets). Here, failure to come to a complete stop is always a violation.

    Yes. Our statute says the same thing. See my previous comment.

    Richard: Same.

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  11. Burt,

    *You read too much between the lines. I only went to court once.

    *The judge did not ask the police officer to interpret the law. He asked if the police officer had an answer to my argument. The police officer had many responses to common arguments, which is entirely normal and in no way unique to this case.

    * I wouldn’t swear that the judge used the word “plaintiff”. That wasn’t a detail that mattered to me. And given your objection is based on the request for interpretation, I’m unconcerned. See previous point.

    *I wasn’t challenging red light camera enforcement. I would have made exactly the same argument to a ticket issued by an actual police officer.

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    • I know this one! (waves hand frantically). You get to give your opinion of the law because you are standing for yourself as legal representation. The officer has no such standing, therefore, he may not answer your argument, which is about the law.

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  12. Jaybird–yeah, your cop didn’t show up.

    Cops in California used to rarely show up in court, then the state got serious and made it a job performance requirement–this is waaaaay back in the 80s. But even so, out of maybe 30 cases that day, 4 or 5 got to walk because the cop didn’t show.

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  13. Rudyard Kipling’s story “The village that voted the Earth was flat” is about a town that set up a speed trap as a revenue source and the revenge by a group of motorists caught in it. You might enjoy reading it.

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