Many drivers in Texas have opened their mail to find a surprise traffic ticket, photograph of their vehicle, and a stiff fine. Of course, the red light camera program has been extremely unpopular in Texas since the state legislature authorized it 2007. But there is hope for those who hate these automated tickets. There are two ways that the controversial red light cameras could be removed soon.
A local state representative has introduced a widely supported bill in Austin that would eliminate them in May, although past efforts have failed. In addition, the Texas Supreme Court will rule in June on their legality in a case brought by a North Texas lawyer.
But we can all agree that red light runners are extremely dangerous. In a recent year, close to 1,000 people were killed and 137,000 people were injured, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Everyone knows that you are required to stop — not speed through — a red light. But a revealing survey found that while almost all drivers agreed this was unsafe, almost half admitted they had run a red light in the last month anyway. Faced with this problem, many states including Texas authorized cities to install red light cameras to prevent car and truck collisions.
The technology was designed to be fool-proof. After the traffic signal turns to red, the high speed cameras and video cameras have sensors that record the license plates of vehicles which did not stop. Dates, times, and elapsed times are stamped. The video evidence is reviewed by officials, then mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle with a $75 fine.
Arguments for and against red light cameras
Do they make our streets safer? It depends who you ask.
Advocates claim they
- prevent crashes by forcing red light runners to stop before they broadside another vehicle. Here in Fort Worth, transportation officials say they have greatly reduced collisions by 43%;
- free up police from monitoring intersections and testifying in traffic courts; and
- provide badly needed revenues to the state and cities, which received $34 million last year used for trauma medical care and to improve roads and safety.
Opponents argue the red light cameras
- cause rear-end collisions when drivers slam on their brakes realizing they might receive a ticket;
- prevent the offender from properly defending himself in court or prove he was not driving or that he did not own the vehicle; and
- were invented by governments to increase their revenues.
Texas Supreme Court to decide legality
An Irving lawyer, Russell Bowman, received a ticket in the mail in 2014, sued the city of Richardson in state district court, and won. Another attorney filed similar suits against six other cities. However the Dallas Court of Appeals ruled against Bowman last June. Cases were appealed to the Fort Worth Court of Appeals and several went to the Texas Supreme Court.
Bowman argued several points. He said that his constitutional rights were violated because he was not presumed innocent and he was denied due process under the the Sixth Amendment which gives a person the right to confront his accusers in court. Further, the police officer cannot testify as to his guilt based on what someone else (the equipment technician) might believe, when he did not personally witness the violation. Other lawsuits claim that the 2007 state law is void because it did not first complete a required engineering study.
One of the cases, Luis Garcia v. City of Willis, was heard by the Texas Supreme Court in November. Garcia filed a class action lawsuit to declare the law unconstitutional, requested an injunction to stop the cameras, and demanded a refund for the millions of dollars of fines paid. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction and said that only the municipal court could hear the case, but the plea and other arguments were denied. The Beaumont Court of Appeals reversed the decision in favor of the city.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, the plaintiff also argued that the state legislature erroneously gave appeal jurisdiction to a city hearing officer and that appeals had to be heard by the municipal court, not by the justice of the peace which is allegedly required by the Texas Constitution. The state attorney general urged the court to maintain the cameras for safety reasons and argued that the plaintiff had already paid the ticket and waived his right to claim injury.
Will U.S. Supreme Court rule on the constitutionality of the cameras?
People have appealed their tickets in similar lawsuits across the country. Court cases are naturally yielding contrary decisions. The Supreme Court could step in and decide the law of the land after the appeals processes are completed. However the court only hears a very small percentage (4%) of appeals and may not want to get involved.
What should Texas do?
Regardless of which side you are on and how the court cases are decided, there are too many red light runners. This eye-opening video shows some of them.
Ask any personal injury attorney lawyer and they will tell you that intersection collisions are one of the most common reasons we are hired. We see how red light runners cause serious and catastrophic injuries. You can count on car and truck crashes ballooning if the law is overturned. Is that what drivers want?
Finally, if you need a little musical break, here’s The Clash singing the iconic song from the title of this post.