Fight on red-light camera fines goes all the way to the capital

The state capital is seeing red over how much motorists should be dinged for making so-called “California stops” before turning right on red lights.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, raised the hackles of local government officials when he proposed a major overhaul of the rules governing the use of automatic cameras at intersections to ticket drivers who disobey red lights.

Simitian’s bill would have tightened up rules for installing red-light cameras, most of whose tickets are for failure to come to a full stop before making a right turn (or a left turn onto a one-way street).

The measure responded to criticism that the cameras, supplied by private firms that also collect fines, are deployed for revenue purposes rather than safety and to an increasing tendency of traffic judges to toss out red-light-camera tickets.

An Orange County appellate court, in fact, declared that red-light-camera photos are hearsay evidence and therefore inadmissible.

Simitian’s bill made it through the Senate but was stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee when local officials, police and red-light-camera operators turned up the political heat.

Nevertheless, in the legislative session’s final days, another bill has popped up that would sharply reduce fines for making rolling turns on red lights and thus reduce ticket revenue. And local officials are trying to kill it.

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is carrying a bill that would reduce the base fine from $100 to $35 (from $450 to $219 with assessments) and is backed by the state’s two big auto clubs and the Teamsters union.

Local officials counter that reducing the fine would encourage rolling turns and endanger lives, but the underlying issue appears to be money. Reducing the fine would cut deeply into local traffic revenue, perhaps making them lose investments for local governments and their private contractors.

“For red-light-camera companies that have been lobbying against this bill, it’s about money that has been taken inequitably from drivers,” Hill said.

AB 909 is awaiting a final Assembly vote after Assembly leaders confounded opponents by skipping the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where its financial impact would have been aired — the same committee that blocked Simitian’s bill.

Meanwhile, the legal battle over red-light cameras continues. A lawsuit seeking class action status has been filed in San Mateo County alleging that the cameras are being operated illegally as revenue generators.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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