The next time you get a snitch ticket in the mail, you may be able to check off "none of the above" when asked to identify who was driving your car when it ran a red light, if a new bill passes the legislature.
The state Senate unanimously passed SB 1303 on May 31. Sponsored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, the bill tightens the rules for deploying red-light cameras and makes it easier to challenge so-called "snitch tickets."
The bill requires that camera locations be chosen because of safety considerations, and not revenue potential, and that each jurisdiction meet state standards for placing and operating the cameras, including adequate signage to notify drivers when cameras are in use.
SB 1303 also takes steps to preserve the legal right to remain silent if asked to identify the driver of a car photographed by a camera.
As the Almanac reported in November, Menlo Park police send a "traffic violation notice" -- commonly called a "snitch ticket" -- whenever one of the city's four red-light cameras snaps a photo that isn't clear enough to identify the driver. According to the police, that's about 25 out of every 100 shots. The snitch tickets go to the vehicle's registered owner in hopes of making an identification.
However, there's no legal obligation for the registered owner to identify the driver, something the current form glosses over. It also tells recipients they must fill out and return the form -- again, not true. The Menlo Park police department designed its notices in collaboration with other local agencies that contract with Redflex, the vendor providing the cameras.
According to the senator, the goal of the proposed changes is to clearly indicate that you have the option to not identify the driver. The revised form would be used in all jurisdictions with red-light cameras and gives the vehicle's owner several check-box options, including one that states "none of the above" to account for situations where you may either not recognize the driver or not want to identify him or her. It also never states the form must be completed and returned.
"Let's say it was your estranged husband and there is a history of domestic violence, so maybe you don't want to I.D. him," Sen. Simitian said. "Nobody deputized these people... they should not have to identify someone to avoid getting a ticket that clearly isn't theirs."
The bill must pass the Assembly and escape a veto by the governor to become law. Sen. Simitian's first incarnation of the red-light camera bill got the votes, but got squashed by the governor on grounds that local jurisdictions should regulate their own programs. He said "it reflected a lack of understanding on the part of the administration about just how muddled the real world is" in dealing with the cameras.
Dueling court rulings have left the evidentiary value of the cameras open to attack, as one appellate court decided that the technician directly responsible for maintaining the cameras must testify, while another court came to the opposite conclusion. Los Angeles has now disbanded its red-light camera program, in part due to the legal controversy and also because of difficulty in collecting the fines.
Menlo Park Transportation Commissioner Ray Mueller said the forms should clearly advise everyone of the right to remain silent, and praised the move to revise the notices.
"We are so very lucky to have a senator like Joe Simitian, who understands that the delicate line that sets boundaries of our civil rights in today's society can be threatened by the slow erosions that occur in the name of public safety, at the nexus between police power and technological improvement," he said.
"This is great legislation, as shown by its unanimous passage in the Senate, and I am looking forward to hearing that the governor has signed the bill, relegating snitch tickets to history's garbage can of bad ideas and failed experiments."
At $437 per fine, the tickets aren't cheap, and neither is the red-light camera program. City staff estimated last year that annual revenue from the red-light camera program hovers around a modest $200,000, not including legal fees for defending citation challenges. By November 2011, the city attorney's office had billed the city approximately $68,000 since the program started in 2008.
Menlo Park's cameras are located at the intersections of Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road; El Camino Real and Ravenswood Avenue; and El Camino Real and Valparaiso Avenue.
A spokesperson for the police department was not immediately available for comment on the proposed changes.