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Caught on Camera Running a Red? Many Now Are Fighting — and Winning

Revenues from fines are way down. The city will dispense with the cameras altogether by September.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version said the contract with American Traffic Systems expires in September, as Mayor Larry Kramer said last week, however, the city has not decided yet whether to renew. Also, we have added new information about revenue generated from the fines in prior years.

The amount of money the city makes off of fines from people who run red lights outfitted with cameras has gone way down, city officials report.

But it’s not that you’ve been obeying traffic laws any better. It’s that more of the scofflaws are fighting the tickets in court, said City Attorney Omar Sandoval.

“What people are figuring out is that if you hire an attorney, you’re going to get your case dismissed,” Sandoval told the council.

San Juan Capistrano has two intersections that use red-light cameras: the Ortega Highway-Del Obispo Street intersection and the Del Obispo-Camino Capistrano intersection.

At last week’s City Council meeting, Cindy Russell, chief financial officer for the city, reviewed a number of revenue sources as part of a financial report to the council.

For the record, sales tax receipts are up, property taxes are flat, “transient occupancy” fees (i.e. hotel taxes) are up thanks to a sooner-than-expected opening of the Residence Inn, developer permit fees are down and fines from the red-light cameras have plummeted, she said.

A report the council received said fines are down $280,000 this year alone.

The peak year for revenues from this system was in 2009-10, totaling approximately $420,000, according to Lt. John Meyer, chief of police services for San Juan Capistrano. Last year, that figure dropped by $100,000, to about $320,000.

Sandoval said that judges at the  have required that a prosecutor be present for any disputed ticket because an Orange County Sheriff’s deputy cannot put himself on the stand for self-examination.

Because running a red light is a violation of the California Vehicle Code, prosecution would normally be the responsibility of the Orange County District Attorney’s office, Sandoval said. But officials there said they would not be able to take on the workload and have offered to “deputize” the city attorney’s staff.

However, “the cost of having our office prosecute is not worthwhile,” Sandoval said.

Ticketed drivers, on the other hand, have a bigger financial incentive to hire an attorney because they are looking to get out of paying the fine, plus the cost of traffic school, Sandoval said.

Patch found several law firms that specifically target a client base with tickets from red-light cameras. 

Diane Askew March 29, 2012 at 04:51 PM
When I received a red light ticket, I spoke with the mayor of SJ at the time, and he said there was no use fighting it, that the city counted on those red light tickets for income but that the yellows were set for two seconds -- the lowest legal limit -- and that it was impossible to stop in time. He said there was no use fighting it in court, that the machines are calibrated. I never saw the red and was ripped off for almost $700 including traffic school. Can we recover after the fact? No? Imagine that.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) March 29, 2012 at 04:55 PM
Interesting (and probably very disheartening for you), Diane. When was this and what mayor? I'm still trying to ascertain how much the city made at the height of the fines.
Matt Gaffney March 29, 2012 at 05:21 PM
I was never in favor of the cameras in the first place. As a member of the Transportation Commission I've been asking questions about the contract & having the cameras removed for quite some time. I'm glad to hear the City isn't renewing the contract. They should've been turned off after 9pm anyway. there isn't enough traffic on Capo's streets at night to warrant the cameras usage.
KC March 29, 2012 at 05:49 PM
That is a good question, was he saying not to fight it from the stance that he is a professional on the law and thinks that it is air tight (it isn't) or was he saying it as the mayor who saw it as a means of easy income for the city?
Jim March 29, 2012 at 08:27 PM
Very good article about "Capo" and OC tickets. Here - for those who drive all over the area - is info about dealing with tickets from other places in California. A camera ticket from ANY city in LA County can be ignored, as the LA courts do not report ignored tickets to the DMV. (This was revealed in multiple LA Times articles last summer. It is applicable ONLY to cities in LA county.) Everyone in California needs to know about Snitch Tickets, which are fake/phishing red light camera tickets sent out by the police in an effort to fool the registered owner into identifying the actual driver of the car. (Local cities using this "social engineering" tactic are Bakersfield, Corona, Del Mar, Encinitas, Escondido, Garden Grove, Gardena, Hawthorne, Inglewood, Laguna Woods, Los Alamitos, Loma Linda, Oceanside, Riverside, Santa Ana, Santa Clarita, Solana Beach, South Gate, Victorville and Vista.) Snitch tickets have not been filed with the court, so they don't say "Notice to Appear," don't have the court's address and phone # on them, and usually say, on the back (in small letters), "Do not contact the court about this notice." Since they have not been filed with the court, they have no legal weight whatsoever. You can, and should, ignore a Snitch Ticket. If in doubt, Google the term.
KC March 30, 2012 at 09:17 PM
Possibly nothing if the driver isn't tied to the registered owner of the car, they don't do a face recognition search with the photos so they won't check for that. They simply send the bill and the photo, if your face does not match, you contest it saying "I wasn't driving" and it can go away. They had a problem with that in Europe where a man used a different country's car (steering on the oposite side) and put Animal from the muppets in what would normally be the driver's seat. Since the photo couldn't capture the driver the man could not be charged for the speeding.
zunynite March 31, 2012 at 12:13 AM
Go to www.highwayrobbery.net and you wil never have to pay for a ticket again!! I did and it worked. Great information and you wont be disappointed!!
V. Duvall April 06, 2012 at 01:24 AM
Whoever you talked to is an idiot. The lights here are set for a minimum of 3.5 seconds. The state of California requires a minimum of 3 seconds, not 2. Get your facts straight.
Slnrd April 18, 2012 at 03:22 PM
Swallow this: Good-bye San Juan Capistrano. I have been a local area resident for the past 20 years & frequented SJC restaurants and businesses regularly - no more. At 58, I haven't had a ticket 35 years. I ride motorcycles & consider myself a safe & careful driver always watching everything: pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers on cell phones and texting, drivers turning right without stopping at lights or stop signs, etc. Driving to dinner in SJC last night I saw a 'flash' from the corner of my eye at Del Obisbo and Camino Cap.. It was about 7 PM & the intersection was very busy. I am particularly diligent at this intersection especially with all the Moms with baby carriages! At dinner I realized that the 'flash' was a traffic signal camera & I thought 'great, I'm going to get a ticket for trying to get through a bad intersection safely?'. Arriving home, I got on the Internet & started reading about the traffic cameras in SJC and how they're being utilized for revenue generation in the city. So congratulations to the SJC Council members: I'm voting with my pocketbook. Goodbye Regency Theater, Sun-Dried Tomato, Los Rios, The Vintage Steakhouse, Cafe Mozart, Swallows and all the other businesses I frequented regularly - no more. Oh and that new car I was going to buy at the local SJC dealership? Not anymore - I'll be making that purchase in Irvine now. I'll get an attorney and see if I can beat this nonsense.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) April 18, 2012 at 04:08 PM
Hi. My understanding is that an actual human being reviews the photos and makes a decision about where a car was when the light goes red as well as speed. So just because you saw a flash doesn't mean you got a ticket. The council will discuss taking down the cameras soon, as the contract expires later this year.
V. Duvall April 18, 2012 at 06:29 PM
SINRD, Just because you saw a flash doesn't mean you are getting a ticket. It could have been someone else, or it could have been an exposure test. Every time the flash goes off it doesn't mean a ticket will be generated. First the photo goes to the company and they inspect it to make sure that all of the info on the vehicle is there, ie, license plate, readable, red light is in the photo, that the vehicle actually crossed the limit line after the light turned red etc. Then it goes to a deputy that must confirm that all of the criteria are met, then he issues a cite. A cite will not be issued unless the yellow was at least 3.5 seconds minimum, or 1 second for each 10MPH of the posted speed limit, and the vehicle in question crossed the limit line AFTER the light turned red. This all has to be done within 2 weeks then, if you did cross into the intersection after the light turned red, YOU WILL GET A CITATION. I've been here 23 years and no citations either, nor have I received a photo enforced citation either. And Penny, the camera only uses speed to anticipate if a vehicle could activate the system. It will also activate the collision avoidance system that makes the lights go Red on Red so the cross traffic stays stopped to prevent a collision. It's not used for anything else. You can, however, calculate how far back from the limit line the vehicle was by using the speed.
V. Duvall April 18, 2012 at 06:34 PM
Jim, in OC you cannot be forced to tell the name. You can't lie, but you can say "I choose not to say". If you lie and say you don't know then you could be charged with making a false statement. But they can't force you to answer.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) April 18, 2012 at 06:55 PM
That's what I mean! ;-)
Slnrd April 18, 2012 at 08:56 PM
V.DUVAL: Well I hope you're right and one of those conditions results in no citation being mailed. I must admit though that the congestion in San Juan Cap. and the l-o-n-g signals particularly near the Mission just make me not even want to drive in SJC anymore. It's really a shame because SJC is so quaint but what a nightmare! And don't even get me started about the freeway ramp construction down at S.J. Creek Road! Guess I'm just spoiled driving in Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Hills all these years?
V. Duvall April 20, 2012 at 12:33 AM
I to, hope you don't get a ticket. I fully agree with you we seem to have a real mess when it comes to traffic issues and congestion. SJ Creek is a horrible mess and there are several others. I hope you don't stop shopping and enjoying San Juan but I would also rather have the driving conditions that exist in Niguel and Aliso. It will never happen because we are a small town trying to accommodate big town traffic :-)
Daisy Funk April 20, 2012 at 01:23 AM
Really Now??? I think the intention is to generate income to the City and especially to the company that provides the camera service-- I read that SJC receives only $139 of that ticket. The firm servicing the cameras receive more than 2/3s of the fine --(mine being $480). I received a red light ticket--and went down and timed the intersection and the yellow light is set for a 3 second duration--which is Cal Trans minimum-- and this is a complicated and challenging intersection and should not be set so low. One more second -even 1/2 second would be much safer -especially for turning and would comply better to Cal Trans suggested 3 to 6 second intervals. By the way my husband (as a Public Works Dir.) set signals in LA County and San Bernardino for safe traffic flow. I think the whole thing is really awful. Funny how the cameras in many of these Cities are set at 3 seconds. My husband and I watched the signal and traffic for over 30 minutes, and a flash went off almost every time at the end of the red. Interesting??? Daisy
V. Duvall April 20, 2012 at 01:56 AM
Daisy, I do not know how much revenue the City gets for each citation but the company receives a flat fee for their services per their contract. They get the same amount of money if one citation is issued or if 1000 citations are issued. It is an annual contract that is NOT based on the number of citations. The State of California sets the bail amount for all California Vehicle Code violations. No law enforcement agency or City can change them. Read my previous post regarding the timing of the signals.
James Funk April 20, 2012 at 05:50 AM
Dear V. Duvall, Please go to the intersection (Ortega westbound at Del Obispo) and time it with a stop watch. It is a yellow 3 second duration, at least when we timed it. It is set a CALTRANS minimum for a speed of 25 miles per hour. First, the duration of the yellow traffic signal at the intersection is not adequate to prevent a typical driver at the end of a green queue of vehicles from entering into the intersection after the signal turns red. Second, if yellow signal time duration is below a threshold value, some approaching drivers can neither stop nor clear the intersection before red signal onset. Such drivers are said to be in the dilemma zone. Third, the traffic control duration for the yellow traffic signal at this intersection creates both a dilemma zone and sets the stage for traffic violation citations.
James Funk April 20, 2012 at 05:52 AM
My stop watch indicated that the duration of the yellow light was 3 seconds or possibly even less. Three seconds is the absolute CALTRANS minimum standard for through traffic yellow light interval durations. However, the issue here is a 3 second duration yellow left turn signal attempting to adequately control vehicles traversing two left turn lanes. At complex intersections with complex movements, this duration is not adequate time for a driver traveling at the posted speed to make a prudent judgment turning left in one of the two left turn lanes at this intersection. Also, it is not adequate time for a vehicles in the intersection (at a reduced turning speed of 20 miles per hour) to traverse a curved turn lane of 90 feet in length prior to the signal turning red. At the posted speed of 25 miles per hour, the vehicle is traveling at 36.7 feet per second. CALTRANS signal operations specify a yellow change interval time of a minimum of 3 seconds, which, for through traffic may be adequate for “simple” signalized intersections but is not adequate for complex intersections and is not adequate for double lane left turn movements such as found at Ortega westbound at Del Obispo.
James Funk April 20, 2012 at 05:58 AM
The Ortega westbound traffic is faced with several complexities: -- The driver is faced with a narrow north shoulder; -- Varying lane widths; -- A curved street; -- Numerous directional pavement painted striping (with chevron arrow-type markings pointing against the left turn traffic movement; -- Cross traffic striping of left turn, through and cross traffic right turn pavement striping; -- Ten posted signs in less than 200 feet giving various instructions as a driver approaches the intersection from the freeway; -- Two north bound Del Obispo lanes turning right onto Ortega Highway; and -- A single westbound through lane paired with two left turn lanes. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways provides a general guidance for the selection of signal change intervals. It states that “yellow vehicle change intervals should have a range of 3 to 6 seconds.” It also recommends that longer intervals be used with higher approach speeds and, it follows that complex movement intersections require more than the absolute minimum duration. It is clear that the timing of the duration of the yellow change interval was not customized to fit the peculiarities and complexities of this intersection as recommended by CALTRANS and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which states: “The duration of the yellow change interval shall be determined using engineering practices.”
V. Duvall April 20, 2012 at 04:11 PM
James, The yellow is set at or better than the State minimum. Human beings cannot manually accurately time the yellow. Reaction time etc. It would be like you manually timing an olympic event. The state minimum for yellow is 3 seconds. That intersection is set at 3.5 seconds. Plenty of time for someone to stop if they are paying attention and not exceeding the speed limit. The signs are well displayed there are well placed readable signs. All you have to do is read them and follow the directions. Read my previous posts for clarification. I don't get why you don't understand. I'm stating the facts as clearly as possible. You just don't want to understand what I m saying. 25 MPH is NOT a "higher approach speed" and the intersection is not "complicated", it's a simple left turn or a through and through. The yellows are set above the legal minimum.
V. Duvall April 20, 2012 at 06:17 PM
It's unfortunate that you, personally, find this intersection complicated. Thousands of people are able to negotiate this intersection weekly without getting a citation
Kathy Vickers April 30, 2012 at 08:41 PM
Ticket for my son came in my name and was thrown out, yet they must have found him through the insurance records cause it is back. Court again tomorrow for my 4th time... Driving east on Ortega at Del Obispo...any advise?
V. Duvall May 01, 2012 at 12:30 AM
The cites come to the registered owner of the car. They always throw those out, you're the wrong gender. You could have sent in the affidavit stating you were not the driver. Law Enforcement looks up similar names and will find the person if they are in your family. If he ran the red light, there's nothing you can do
Slnrd May 13, 2012 at 02:02 AM
I returned to the Del Obisbo / Camino Capistrano intersection recently. First, there's a Speed Limit 35 sign on the right as you approach the bridge to cross over SJ Creek. Really? After the bridge is a traffic signal and immediately thereafter a railroad crossing! Shouldn't the speed be reduced to 25 at this point? The Photo Enforced sign is on a pole to the right in front of the Chevron station. You won't see the sign if there's a tall truck in the right turn lane and heaven forbid you have a tall vehicle directly in front of you blocking your view. The sign is NOT posted where drivers are looking - next to the traffic signal hanging over the street! So as you cross the bridge, dealing with the next traffic light, then the railroad crossing, trying to either get in the left turn lane, or determine if you can even go straight without being blocked by traffic waiting to get into the left turn lane, trying to mind the traffic light at Camino Cap. you're supposed to look all the way to the right to read the Photo Enforcement sign and watch for Chevron station traffic and pedestrians? The entire exercise in photo enforcement at that intersection doesn't minimize public safety in any manner whatsoever. Photo enforcement there only adds to driver's concerns and increases the risk of collision. Of course, all this is secondary to the revenue generated for all those that created this fiasco in the first place!.
John Smith May 17, 2012 at 01:06 AM
Got one and the wife got one at a later time. We never went online and never called. Just threw them away. I was told by my brother who is a corp. atty that they have no proof of recpt of the ticket if I don't let it be known. This was over 6 months ago and I even went and renewed my driver’s license the other day without a problem. They are supposed to send someone out to your home and physically give you the ticket if they don't hear from you or have you registered as going online to prove you got the ticket. DON'T DO ANYTHING WITH IT! THROW IT OUT AND DO NOT LOOK IT UP ONLINE!
Hercules1944 June 02, 2012 at 05:47 PM
http://www.thenewspaper.com/news/16/1688.asp Califonia again is way off in space. Most states have already declred red light cameras unconstitutional. Basic premise of the American Judisprudence System is that you have a right to face your accuser in a court of law and your accuser has to prove you are guilty, not the reverse like you see with red light cameras. Can a camera testify in court? Can a camera be cross examined? I think not. BTW: I live in Minnesota. I signed up with the patch to follow the SGT Manny Loggins murder. Repeat-MURDER. I taint following OCSD statements.
Diane Askew June 16, 2012 at 06:05 AM
The "idiot" was Lon Uso, and I don't agree with that label for him, V. (Do I detect some anger in your response, V?) Perhaps he was off a second, but it's still close to impossible to stop in 3 seconds. To answer your question, Penny, the numbers he quoted me were in the mid six figures. He said that he had opposed the red light cameras when it was proposed they be installed and that the city council overruled him. He was very candid and open about the situation, which I appreciated. He also said that he had many letters from tourists who said they would never come back to Capistrano after getting one of those tickets or being involved in an accident from someone slamming on their brakes to try to stop in time. This was in May or June of 2010.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) June 16, 2012 at 01:11 PM
Hi Diane, Here's the update: http://sanjuancapistrano.patch.com/articles/staff-dump-the-red-light-cameras The cameras will soon be history. Staff said at the height of income, the city was making about $400,000 a year (although expenses are quite high, as a deputy has to review the photos).
Greg December 04, 2012 at 08:47 PM
Diane, I too was ripped off for over $550, is there a class action case and possible refunds that you know of? Greg

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