What Not to Do When You Get a Red Light Camera Ticket

Have you ever gotten a ticket while rideshare driving? With all the driving we do as drivers, it’s almost inevitable. But should you fight the ticket when you get it? Senior RSG contributor John Ince shares what happened when he tried to fight city hall over a red light camera ticket.

It’s just my second night driving and it’s about 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and by this point in the evening, I’m pretty much brain dead. I’ve been driving 6 hours straight with one ping stacked right after another – a steady stream all night long.  I’ve made over $200 bucks and I feel good about that. I’m ready to call it a night but before I can log out of the app, I get another ping.

Okay, I say and accept it – it’s a good surge. I’m moving in traffic and look for the nearest place to pull over so I can figure out the navigation. But I’m not quite sure where I am the darkness. I pull to the right in what appears to be a parking lane, but actually I’ve pulled over and stopped in the right lane of an intersection.  For the few moments I’m idling there, nobody passed.  No harm, I think, I look both ways and pull out when suddenly I see a flash overhead… and then another…

A Red Light Camera Ticket

I got the notice in the mail about two weeks later and there was a lot of money at stake – $490 to be precise. Then there was the matter of points on my driving record, potentially increasing my insurance costs. I had some room to play with there because I’ve had no blemishes on my driving record for 15 years. But still, $490 bucks is more than I made that whole week as a driver.

The fine seemed unconscionable to me – mostly a way for the City of San Francisco to raise revenue. My inclination is to fight it. So I decided to look into my options.

For legal advice  I turned to a man who was probably in a better decision than almost anyone else to offer it – Marin County Superior Court Judge, Gary Thomas. Judge Thomas was a well known figure in my town, having been paralyzed from the waist down in a courtroom shootout involving members of the Black Panthers decades ago, But he’s an approachable and gregarious guy. So that Friday I walked over to Judge Thomas and explained exactly what happened.  His response provided me with a strategy moving forward.

He said, Don’t admit you were driving the car… Our legal system doesn’t care whether you were actually guilty. It only cares whether there is enough evidence to convict you… It’s an imperfect legal system, but it’s better than any other system that has been devised my humankind.

Planting Seeds of Doubt

So I started thinking of things that could raise doubts in the judge’s mind:

  1. The first was the picture of me: it was extremely blurry.  I asked Judge Thomas if they could identify me in the picture beyond reasonable doubt and he said no.  Over the ensuing weeks, I showed the darkened photo to almost 50 people, and none of them felt that I could be identified from the photo.  So that was my first line of defense.
  2. Second, the person in the picture is clearly wearing glasses and I don’t wear glasses, except when reading – which is what I was doing when trying to figure out navigation.  I could stand before the Judge without glasses and perhaps that would plant a seed of doubt.
  3. The third potential seed of doubt was the hour where it took place what was it the 1:40 in the morning. I very seldom am out at that hour.
  4. Finally I researched the law about red light cameras and learned that there are a lot of restrictions. For example, the sign announcing the camera must be within 200 feet of the intersection. I went down to the scene of the alleged crime – paced it off and learned that the sign didn’t comply with the law.

The Arraignment

Next up on the agenda was my court arraignment on the red light camera ticket. It’s called the Hall of Justice. After watching a 15 minute video explaining all our options, the judge basically said all the same stuff again,

“You’re first option is to plead guilty and pay the fine. You’re second option is to plead guilty and go to traffic school. In that case the fine will be reduced, it won’t go on your record but you must pay the $50 for traffic school and complete the course. Your third option is to plead not guilty and ask for a trial date.”

That’s the one I’d been waiting for. From there it was game of musical chairs. The clerk called all of us individually up before the judge where we entered a plea. Out of 50 or so of us, I was called second from last. “Not Guilty!” I affirmed and was a assigned a trial date on the Monday just before Thanksgiving.

The Trial

Months later with plenty of time to prepare my defense and my case, I arrived at Courtroom B and the Bailiff let us all in. The clerk started calling names of defendants. With the first name called – a guy in a dark suit in the front row says “Counsel.” It happens about 20 more times – all these people are being defended by the guy in the front row.  Everyone is guilty – it doesn’t look good, as the judge seems to be a rubber stamp for the cops.

Finally – the last name is called. John Ince. “Present” I say surprising myself how loud and commanding my voice is. The clerk calls the cops name – Officer Smith – a serious looking officer in the front row responds, “Present!” Damn – my hope that the cop wouldn’t show are dashed. Now looks like I’m going to have to face the judge.

But I have hope because in my case no cop saw the incident – just the camera.  It’s all on the picture. All the people I’ve asked think you can’t tell it’s me in the picture, but they don’t count.   What will the judge say?

The room starts to empty now empty except for me, Officer Smith, the clerk, the judge, and some guy in the back row in a suit. I rise to the podium standing beside the cop. She presents her case.

“So what do you want to say?” the judge asks me.

This was my moment, and I’d waited patiently for it. “First I want to say that I was in total shock when the ticket arrived in the mail.”

“They usually are.” the judge says without a hint of compassion.

“I have no recollection of running a red light. I live in Marin and it would be very unusual for me to be in San Francisco at 1:40 am on a Saturday morning.” I look at the judge – he’s looking at the picture, and then at me. I can feel I’m in trouble…

The judge isn’t buying it.  He says, “sure looks like you in this picture.”

I push on, “Your honor, the person in the picture is wearing glasses – I don’t wear glasses.”

“But this sure looks like you.” he said.

I ask, “Can you say it’s me beyond all reasonable doubt?” I ask.

“As far as I’m concerned this picture is sufficient evidence. You’re telling me someone else might have been driving your car, but I have no evidence of that. If you could have someone with you who said they were driving your car – or a letter from them I would consider that. I need some evidence it’s not you,” the judge replied.

One More Bullet

Wait – I’ve got one more bullet.

“Your honor, there is another issue here. The California Vehicle code requires a signs for the red light camera be within 200 feet of the intersection.”

“It does?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say and start pulling out a printout of the Code.

That guy in the the suit in the back row in the suit gets up and leaps to action. Reinforcements are on their way to the podium “I’m a trained technician for – the company…”

“Have you measured the distance of the sign,” I ask the technician.

“No, we haven’t measured it,” he responds. The judge is caught off guard – he hasn’t heard this one before. I continue,  “I have measured it and it’s in violation of the California Vehicle Code.”

I get ready to pull out my cellphone with a video of me pacing off the distance. The judge cuts me short. “I don’t see how that’s relevant here.”

“I wonder,” I say,  “How is it not relevant that the signage doesn’t comply with the California Vehicle code?”

“It’s not relevant,” he reiterates.

That’s it – I know it. The judge says, “I’m going to say you’re guilty.” The fine will be $490 bucks – payable by December 12.

I had to pay $490 bucks, but I got something more valuable out of it …

The Irony of It All

There was an irony at work in all this that didn’t occur to me until a few weeks later when I watched the video more carefully on the Internet. In that video, the light was green when I entered the intersection. According to the law, I was actually not guilty.

The video didn’t lie – I stopped in the intersection long enough for the camera to change to red.  When I started moving, the camera detected the motion and flashed because the light was now red.  All this was documented by the 20 second video. Had I simply watched the video carefully and seen that I had documented proof that I entered the intersection while the light was green and pointed this all out to the judge, I’m quite certain that he would have had no choice but to let me go free.

Instead, I got so wrapped up in trying to plant seeds of doubt in the judge’s mind that I lost sight of the truth. Sometimes we outsmart ourselves.  Sometimes the simplest and best thing we can do is just to simply tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

So I got the ticket and had to pay the $490, but I got something in return much more valuable. As we get older, we find ourselves in countless situations where we think we’re justified or even required to somehow fudge the truth. In this case, had I just told the truth I would have been much better off. Somehow, now, that $490 seems well worth the lesson I learned from the experience.

Readers, has something like this ever happened to you?

-John @ RSG