Your Karma Vs. Their Camera

Almost 100,000 tickets later, red-light camera evidence wins every time

Knoxville City Traffic Court typically runs five sessions a week, but one day a month the presiding judge can count on never once saying, "not guilty." That would be red-light camera citation hearing day, the first Wednesday of each month.

Of the 99,779 tickets issued at 15 stoplights since Knoxville contracted with Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. to install cameras in April 2006, 425 recipients have requested court hearings, which cost an additional $118 if you're found guilty, says City Court Supervisor Rick Wingate. "But not many actually show up for the hearing, fewer than 100."

And all those who did appear were found guilty of running the red light based on evidence furnished by the camera.

"There have been a few cases that reached the hearing stage but were dismissed due to a tag being misread, but that's the type of thing that would have been adjusted automatically at the ticket payment window without a hearing," says Wingate. "No one's ever beat the actual citation for running the red light."

Video evidence, a technological advance also being used in police cruisers, is very hard to dispute, says patrol coordinator Capt. Gordon Catlett, who oversees the red-light camera program. "You have photos of the red light being run, you have a picture of the vehicle tag and a video of what happened. As the comedian says, ‘Who are you going to believe, me or your lyin' eyes?'"

The three people who are appealing their tickets in Circuit Court and the one who's lost in Circuit Court and appealing to the next level are not claiming innocence, says Wingate. "They are approaching those cases more on the legality of the city using cameras to enforce the law, not denying the red light infraction," he says.

Maryville attorney Roland Cowden, for example, "took the Fifth" at the hearing for the red light camera ticket he received in August, invoking his right against self-incrimination. He then filed an appeal in Circuit Court based on the red-light surveillance "being done without warrant and without any showing of probable cause" and saying such tactics "cannot but have a chilling effect upon our freedoms of speech and peaceable assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment."

In August 2006, attorney David B. Hamilton filed a lawsuit in federal court for a fifth plaintiff, Judy Williams, against all involved in issuing her ticket—from Mayor Haslam to Redflex to Michael Sullivan, the officer who signed the ticket. The suit claims the Red Light Enforcement program "unlawfully deprives or hinders her access to the courts, a civil right."

A motion to dismiss filed by all of the defendants has that case "on hold" nearly 18 months later, says Knoxville Deputy Law Director Ron Mills. The motion rests largely on Williams' proceeding directly to the federal appeal without going through intermediary challenge steps that were available.

How quickly that motion is decided is "entirely up to the judge," says Mills.

With $1.17 million generated for the city's general fund two years into its three-year contract with Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., along with $2.13 million for Redflex itself, it's unlikely any privacy arguments or due process issues will disband the system.

But Wingate feels confident that only guilty people are paying the $50 fine, because two humans also oversee the hotshot technology. "The light has to be completely red when you enter the intersection," he says, "with your front tire over a certain line. That will trigger the camera to take the picture. It is then downloaded to Redflex offices in Arizona, where someone watches the video and looks and verifies that you indeed ran the light. There are a lot that the Redflex folks determine, ‘No, you didn't.'"

Next, Redflex marks the photos and the videos that do involve an infraction and downloads them back to Knoxville, where an officer reviews them once more before issuing a ticket.

Each ticket utilizes at least three pictures, including a close-up of your vehicle tag, says Wingate. "We save a lot of people the $118 court fee because when they arrive for their hearing we'll ask, ‘Have you ever seen your video?' We'll look at it and it's not even debatable...it's like the Indy 500, the brake lights don't even come on. We'll ask, ‘So, when did you stop?' Usually those people just grin and are like, ‘Okay, here's my check for the $50.'"

And there is one other way to avoid paying a red-light camera ticket, says Wingate: "If you receive a red-light camera ticket and you let us know you weren't the one driving the car, we'll give you a chance to ‘nominate' the person who was driving the car to receive the ticket instead. But if they send the ticket back or ignore it, it comes back to you...it's still your responsibility if it's your vehicle.