NMA E-Newsletter #283: He Said, She Said, It Said?

Challenging a red-light ticket on constitutional and due process grounds just became more difficult thanks to the California Supreme Court.

In a recent ruling (California v. Goldsmith) the court concluded that red-light camera evidence does not constitute hearsay, which is defined as second-hand evidence about a statement made by a person. The court also ruled that “evidence” compiled by ticket cameras “has the presumption of authenticity,” This means that camera evidence is considered valid unless the driver can successfully show otherwise.

The decision stems from the case of Carmen Goldsmith, who was convicted of a red-light camera violation in Los Angeles Superior Court in 2009. The only witness against her was an Inglewood police officer who had not personally witnessed the incident. Instead, the officer offered standard testimony about the facts of the case, based on the visual record supplied by the red-light camera. Goldsmith objected, arguing that the officer’s testimony amounted to hearsay, but the court disagreed.

The court used the California Evidence Code to define hearsay as “evidence of a statement that was made other than by a witness while testifying at the hearing and that is offered to prove the truth of the matter stated.” The court reasoned that since a “statement” must be made by a person (according to the evidence code), and since a red-light camera is not a person, the evidence it provides does not constitute hearsay.

But the court wasn’t finished. It went on to say that because the red-light camera evidence is not hearsay, the defendant’s right to confront the witness presenting the evidence (as guaranteed by the 6th Amendment to the Constitution) does not apply “[b]ecause, unlike a person, a machine cannot be cross-examined.”

Let’s go through that again: “because, unlike a person, a machine cannot be cross-examined.” Isn’t that the problem in the first place? Shouldn’t the fact that there is no live witness to the event be the real issue in this case? Apparently the California Supreme Court can’t be bothered with such details. (It’s worth noting that in a previous red-light camera case, the California Court of Appeal sided with the defendant who made arguments similar to Goldsmith’s.)

The court can’t take all the credit, however. The California Legislature laid the groundwork for this ruling in 2012 when it passed Senate Bill 1303 which states specifically that data from a red-light camera does not constitute hearsay. There is ample evidence to show this bill was written with help from Redflex lobbyists who inserted the hearsay language to specifically thwart Goldsmith, whose case was working through the lower courts at that time.

It’s a slick plan, a template used over and over around the country: Camera company lobbyists use their considerable resources to influence lawmakers who write legislation favorable to the camera companies. When legal challenges arise, courts, following the letter of the law, rule in favor of camera company interests. And motorists get the short end of the stick.

Please don’t misunderstand. If you get a red-light camera ticket, fight it. Raise all of the constitutional/due process arguments you can. You may prevail. These people did.

But looking at the big picture, the NMA believes the most effective way to fight red-light cameras at the state or national level is to attack the revenue stream. Our push for longer yellow lights at camera-equipped intersections does just that. After Loma Linda, California, lengthened yellow-light times by one second, red-light running violations dropped 92 percent. The revenue dried up and the cameras soon went away. Some Florida communities are shutting down their camera programs after the Florida Department of Transportation mandated longer yellow-light times last year. The reason? They’re no longer profitable.

The camera companies and their policymaker accomplices have the resources to fight lengthy court battles on multiple fronts, but they are still vulnerable where it counts: on the bottom line.

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