Beating the Photo Ticket Runaround

This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 edition of the National Motorists Association’s Driving Freedoms magazine. As a member of the NMA, you receive an automatic subscription four times per year. Become a member today and help the NMA advocate against automated traffic enforcement and other issues affecting motorists. 

Editor’s Note: Many accounts have been written over time about battles between man and machine, with the former often not coming out on top. This may seem like another of those battles, but it really is about a man taking on a system constructed deliberately to confuse and confound challenges against it. The NMA was contacted a few months ago by the man who was incensed about receiving an automated traffic enforcement ticket from driving through a small Chicago-area suburb. He sought information from the NMA in his quest to understand the whys and wherefores of the red-light violation he was facing. In truth, his battle against a ticket camera bureaucracy that is rarely challenged is mostly about a motorist wanting to be treated fairly and with respect. The following chronicle is mostly in his own words. It is a story of how one man’s perseverance for justice won out in the end.

This is about the intersection at Route 59 and 135th Street in Plainfield, IL, about 35 miles southwest of Chicago. Route 59 is a major road, varying from four to six lanes. The speed limit at the intersection in question is 45 mph, but the prevailing speed is probably 50 to 55 mph.

I was driving south on Route 59 when the light turned yellow at 135th. I was going to try to stop and slow down a bit before realizing there was no way to stop safely in time. The light turned red right as I reached the intersection. I thought to myself, “Wow, this is an uncomfortably short yellow light.” But I thought no more of it until I got a camera ticket in the mail: two pictures and a video. The relevant picture was of my car when the light turned red. I was right at the white intersection line, but the angle of the photographic evidence was not straight down the line, making a precise determination of my vehicle’s position impossible. Supposedly someone reviews the evidence before issuing a ticket. If they did in this case, they ignored the lack of clear proof of a violation.

When I called the Plainfield district attorney’s (DA) office, I was told my driving dilemma of whether to slam on the brakes to try to stop and risk a rear-end collision didn’t matter because I violated the red light. Well, it matters to me. I was told Plainfield had no courtroom; the village rents a room for hearings.

I requested a hearing. They made that near impossible too. The scheduling can’t be done over the phone, online, or even in person. The ticket stub has to be mailed to either Washington State or Arizona. The Washington address for paying the ticket was provided. The Arizona address, on the reverse side of the ticket for a hearing request, wasn’t. Unless defendants who want to fight the ticket take the extra steps to find out where to send their request, they probably send it in error to Washington. That confusion probably doesn’t get straightened out by the two-week hearing request deadline, if ever, and a guilty verdict is virtually assured.

The automated helpline was garbled. After much effort, I found someone at the police station who gave me the Arizona information. I then confirmed that the hearing would be held in the rented room in Plainfield. No way was given to verify or track any of this.

I’m not really confident this will work out. However, I refuse to pay a $100 penalty for a violation I am not guilty of committing. I will be heard if they set up the hearing. If not, another government scam succeeds, a carefully planned one in all respects.

Fast forward a few weeks when our intrepid motorist received his hearing.

Well, I had my hearing. I was the first person to show up. A woman had to unlock a door for me. She checked me in, mentioned she knew a lot about the procedure, and offered to answer some questions. She noted that the “judge” got hung up and was running late, so I started showing her some pictures of my alleged violation. She said, “everyone blames us for that [the yellow light timing], but we don’t set it.” So Plainfield wants red-light cameras and presumably profits from them but is hands-off regarding responsibility for operational standards.

My case was last on the schedule. Three other cases were heard, none of them straight camera violations. That was it, the three other defendants and me. Nothing was formal about the proceedings. The judge wasn’t announced to the room, she had no name plaque to tell us who she was, and there was no swearing in.

After the other cases were dealt with, the judge watched the video from the red-light camera and proclaimed, “It’s close.” I showed her the other pictures that were inconclusive in showing whether my car entered the intersection after the light turned red. She said she liked the effort I put into the case, and if one-quarter of a second were added to the yellow period, I definitely would have made it. With that, she dismissed my case. When I asked for proof of her decision, she said it would come in the mail. I immediately wondered if that meant Plainfield, Washington, or Arizona, but I decided not to push it.

Apparently, Plainfield has these hearings only once a month. Two people for the prosecution, the person who may or may not be a judge, and the woman who unlocked the door to let me in. No names, not titles. A lot of strange things going on with this so-called system of justice. So many barriers are constructed to discourage people from defending their rights. I’m happy about the dismissal and can only hope that I’m done with all of this.

When I first got the ticket in the mail, I knew nothing about these camera scams. I thought it was a real ticket. I knew nothing about yellow light formulas and minimum-suggested durations to allow time for a safe stop, nothing about third-party camera companies, nothing about “rent a room” hearings, and pretend judges.

I learned a lot and am disgusted. The bottom line, these kinds of tactics encourage unsafe driving. Normally based on the situation, I’ll brake or take my foot off the gas when I see a yellow and judge the safest course of action. So what do I do next time since I don’t know where these short yellow light cameras are located? The dilemma pretty much forces people to drive unsafely—speed up or slam on the brakes—to avoid getting a photo ticket. Isn’t that the opposite of what traffic laws are supposed to do? My standard of slowing down and evaluating when approaching a traffic signal turning yellow has definitely been altered.

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