by lyle e davis
This story is about a scam coming from a place you would never expect it: your local police department.
They send out fake red light camera "tickets." They call them Nominations. At least nine cities in California are sending out fake red light camera tickets, to get you to identify the driver, so that they can send the real driver a real ticket. In North San Diego County the cities are Escondido, Vista, Oceanside, and Encinitas.
Most people, not having heard anything about it in the press, receive the fake ticket and respond with the information.
The Traffic Violation Notice
Police agencies say that there are two types of mailings. One, the ‘Traffic Violation Notice’ - which is the ‘fake red light camera ticket.’ It closely resembles a real ticket, and is written, bilingually, in mandatory wording ("must complete" and "debe completar," and that the incident is called a "citation" or "boleta" even though nothing has been filed with the court.) There are several clues as to which is which.
If your "ticket" does not have the address and phone number of the court on it, or if it says, "Do not contact the court," it's not really a ticket at all. It's a fake, normally generated by either the police or the RedFlex operators. The other danger here is that it could have been printed up by a clever confidence man who hopes you will give him your credit card number.
The ‘notifications’ are fully bilingual, in English and Spanish, and police agencies readily admit that they are written in ‘strong language’ with the hope and intent that the recipient will ‘nominate’ or identify the driver of the vehicle that is obviously not the registered owner.
They also report that rental car agencies will immediately nominate the drivers of the subject vehicles.
The Traffic Citation
The second type of mailing is an actual citation. A citation is a bonafide traffic violation ticket. It means . . ‘you’ve been caught dead to rights.’
We publish the ‘notice’ and refer the reader to the actual ‘citation’ at http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/documents/tr115.pdf so you may recognize the difference.
The above is an example of a “phony” traffic violation notice
issued by RedFlex, deceptively using the name of the local police agency.
A legitimate traffic citation will have the court’s name and address listed as well as a case number and directions for appearance.
How It Works
The vendor behind the red light camera system is RedFlex, headquartered in Arizona.
The intersections with cameras mounted operate by way of sensors embedded in the concrete, prior to the crosswalk. These sensors trigger the cameras if and when (a) the light has turned red and, (b) the vehicle(s) have passed beyond the lead sensor and thus have entered the intersection after the light has turned red. The cameras do not activate unless the light has already turned red.
We have seen the system work, thanks to the Escondido Police Department and Police Officer, Traffic Investigator, and Motor Officer D. J. Zacchilli. The system is impressive, well planned, and clearly can and should play a role in both cutting down on those who run red lights and identifying those who violate the law and/or contribute to collisions. We saw several that were amazing for the clarity of the video, showing vehicles, in at least one case, traveling in excess of 65 miles per hour. In another we witnessed an actual collision caused by someone who ran a red light.
The sensor system, the cameras, all are connected to a DSL computer link which, in turn, is connected to RedFlex in Arizona. Their operators view the videotapes of the violators daily, and have a clear view of (a) the vehicle entering the intersection after the light has turned red, (b) the rear license plate, and (c) the front view of the vehicle, which, in most cases, gives a clear photo of the driver. There are 12 seconds of video to view. Both RedFlex and police agencies want clear photos so they can make accurate identification. They process the tapes and apply a three-step quality control process to determine if they are able to identify the driver.
RedFlex sends back the video to the law enforcement agency with a list of clear violations and clear photo identification; they also indicate to the agencies those videos where the photo is too blurry to be sure of who it is, there is a gender disparity between registerd owner and the driver, too wide of a difference in ages, or for other reasons. The local police operator then checks for more complete data with DMV records. If he is unable to identify the driver then he may advise RedFlex to issue a “Notice of Violation.’ If the registered owner of the vehicle shows up to contest the ‘notice of violation,’ and refuses (which is his legal right) to identify or ‘nominate’ who the driver is, then the officer will likely dismiss the case as not having sufficient strength to persuade a judge or traffic commissioner as to the guilt of the alleged violator.
Why Do They Do It?
The incentive for issuing “Notices of Violation” is that it costs the law enforcement agency nothing. RedFlex, however, bills the law enforcement agency $89 each time a legal citation is issued due to the red light camera system.
If they send a “Notice of Violation” and it winds up getting them the information they need to issue a bona fide citation then they have recovered the money they had to advance to RedFlex. If the ‘Notice of Violation’ doesn’t work, they’re not out anything. Police agencies we talked to in researching this story said, however, that they not only don’t care that much about the fees paid to RedFlex, they seldom know how much revenue is derived from the system.
We attempted to determine the revenue stream generated by the RedFlex system for the city of Escondido. Sgt. Dana Ray told us the city has no way of tracking that information. They may have red light revenue but what percentage of that figure is from RedFlex, he claimed he did not know how to access. We expressed surprise at this lack of a basic accounting procedure, being able to measure revenue against expenses on what is a rather expensive system. Further, since the system has been in place since 2004, there should be accurate data. This inability to accurately report accounting data troubled us and we promised to look into the matter and report back in a subsequent issue.
“What often happens,” says Officer Zacchilli, “is when a driver receives a citation, he decides he wants to contest it. He comes down to the station, we show him the videotape and he rather sheepishly then acknowledges he clearly sees he was in violation. He usually then just either goes to Traffic School, if he qualifies, or pays the fine.”
The city of Escondido has based its use of red light cameras on a goal of reducing collisions rather than on how many tickets were issued for red light violations. Accordingly, they have assigned red light cameras to intersections where there were the highest number of collision statistics, at an approximate cost of $100,000 for each location. (Other cities may well opt to focus more on high traffic violation sites).
In Escondido, red light cameras are located at:
Valley Parkway and Centre City
Valley Parkway and Escondido Boulevard
2nd Avenue and Escondido Boulevard
2nd Avenue and Juniper
Auto Parkway and West Valley Pkwy
Tulip & West Valley Parkway
Lincoln & Fig
There are also signs at the various entrances to the city that say “Photo Enforced.” This is fair warning that the camera system is installed within the city but not necessarily at that particular event. That tends to slow people down in that area as well as they assume there are cameras operating there. Police do nothing to divert that assumption. They’re rather pleased at the decrease in collisions.
In Oceanside, there are two Redflex Cameras . . . at the intersections of Mission Avenue and Canyon Drive and on Oceanside Boulevard and College Boulevard. The police department plans on requesting eight additional cameras from the Oceanside City Council, probably by the end of this year.
In Vista, the RedFlex photo systems are at the intersections of:
Melrose and Hacienda
Melrose and E. Vista Way
North Santa Fe and Vista Village Drive
Escondido Avenue and South Santa Fe
Left Turn Lanes and Cameras
Escondido does not monitor left turn lanes, or right turn lanes, for that matter, with cameras.
“We’re more concerned with the through-traffic violators,” says Officer Zacchilli. "That’s where the collisions, particularly serious collisions, are more likely to happen. So, we focus there.”
It’s a slightly different story in Vista, where traffic and other laws are enforced by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
The working relationship and technology with RedFlex is pretty much the same with all law enforcement agencies. The company's cut per ticket varies by city, but in its hometown, Scottsdale, Redflex pockets about $40 from each $180 red-light fine. Critics argue that there is a financial incentive for RedFlex to push for issuance of sometimes questionable citations.
There are, however, slight differences in the language on the ‘Notice of Violation’ forms sent out, and there are differences as to what is enforced and where. All agencies are interested in through-traffic intersections, but Vista also monitors left and right turn lanes. This could be important financially as there are legal arguments that the setting of timing of the lights can influence whether or not a motorist is more or less likely to violate a law.
For example, there's a big incentive for the cities, and the camera companies, to set the yellows very short. Here in California our legislature passed a law three years ago setting a minimum yellow for straight-through traffic. While the mandated straight-through minimums are on the short side, nonetheless it has caused the lucrative enforcement to shift to left and right turns, for which the minimum yellow is just 3.0 seconds. But there's no evidence that people turning left or right cause the horrible accidents that the authorities say they want to prevent. If one accepts that it's a reasonable goal to decrease left-turn runners, there's an alternative to heavy ticketing. An examination of the Mesa, Arizona, Ticket Counts table demonstrates that left turn violations go way down, and stay down, when drivers are given a reasonable amount of yellow. And for straight through movements, the Ticket Counts table on the Costa Mesa, California, Documents page shows that just a few tenths of a second longer yellow makes a significant decrease in the number of tickets.
With specific reference to the straight through red light camera operations, the Vista Sheriff’s Department confirms the procedure as outlined earlier in this article. They also pointed out, as did the Escondido Police department, that a fairly large number of violations are dismissed.
Lieutenant Hernando Torres, Former Field Lieutenant for the Vista Sheriff’s Patrol : “Just as an example, they might have 5000 cases a month from all the San Diego jurisdictions. They may well reject 3000 and send 2000 back to the area law enforcement agencies. Then, the various law enforcement agencies examine the videos and determine how many valid videos we have. We will often further reject additional videos because we don’t believe there is sufficient identification of the driver that it would stand up in court.
As far as any notification forms, other than official traffic citations, those are initiated by RedFlex. They may have an address of Vista, Encinitas, or Escondido . . . but they are initiated there . . . not by local law enforcement.
Lieutenant Torres also said that the proposal and related documents were all submitted to city attorneys for the various cities involved, and then to the courts, to ensure that they would be recognized and accepted by the courts.
One difference between Escondido and Vista is that Escondido does not utilize the RedFlex camera system on left and/or right hand turn lanes, Vista does. We asked Sheriff’s Sergeant Martinez of Vista for the amount of time Vista allocated both for straight through red light operations as well as left/right hand turn lanes. At press time, he had not returned our calls with the requested information. He claimed, however, that they were above the recommended times posted by CalTrans.
Can The System Be Defeated?
There are a number of vendors, particularly on the Internet, who claim their product can defeat the red light camera operations. They usually involve either a transparent license plate cover that has a built in prism which allegedly bends the vision the camera has of the plate and renders it not readable. Most police agencies and several tv stations have demonstrated that this method does not appear to work.
Of late, there has been an aerosol spray can offered by http://www.phantomplate.com/reflector.html
An examination of this site shows that, indeed, the Denver Police Department cooperated with the company and demonstrated that their product does, indeed, block the camera’s view of the license plate. This demo was picked up by a number of television news stations and shown repeatedly, both here and abroad, in Australia and Holland, for example.
The principle behind this is that the aerosol spray coats the license plate with crystals that overexpose the license plate by absorbing the light from the camera flash thus leaving a white space instead of the license plate numbers. We contacted Vista, Escondido, and El Cajon law enforcement. Vista had no experience with the new product, nor did El Cajon. El Cajon had, however, cooperated with Leonard Villareal, then with KGTV, Channel 10, in testing a similar product as well as the transparent license plate cover, both of which failed, neither of which were this product.
If you wish to investigate this product, you may go to the website listed above, but, as always ‘Caveat Emptor,’ (Let the Buyer Beware).
A demonstration of how the RedFlex Camera system works in Escondido:
In the RedFlex camera sequence above, Photo #1 at the top, shows the vehicle triggering the photo
mechanism by approaching the intersection after the light has turned red. In Photo #2,
the vehicle has entered the intersection, and in Photo #3, the vehicle collides with another vehicle
The official format for a real ticket
http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/documents/tr115.pdf is on the website of the Judicial Council of California.
Officer D. J. Zacchilli
Sergeant Mark Varnau
Administrative Sergeant 940.4551
Sergeant Kevin Kaiser
El Cajon Police Department
Agent Steve Reilly - El Cajon Traffic Enforcement