State Senate gives snitch tickets a facelift

Bill also tightens rules for red-light cameras

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.


Like this comment
Posted by Henry
a resident of another community
on Jun 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm

It's good that this article about Simitian's SB 1303 mentions the Snitch Ticket - because most people don't know that there is such a thing. But the article's info needs clarification. A Snitch Ticket is a fake ticket that has not been filed at court. Thus, there is no need to reply to or "challenge" a Snitch Ticket in any way. You just ignore them. (Currently, Snitch Tickets can be recognized by the absence of the address of any court, and many of them will say, in fine print on the back, "Do not contact the court about this notice." If you want to know more about Snitch Tickets, Google the term.)

The article also briefly mentions dueling court rulings about the admissibility of evidence. Simitian's bill now addresses this issue, but in a way very adverse to motorists: Last Tuesday, just before the deadline, Joe amended the bill to add a "hearsay is OK" section, which relieves red light camera companies of their most significant legal liability (defendants' hearsay objections) and saves them the expense of having to fight the two red light camera cases that just got accepted at the Cal. Supreme Court. A big favor for the Industry.

SB 1303 is what's called an "Industry Bill," and it needs to be squashed, again, because this time it is much worse for motorists than was last year's version.

Like this comment
Posted by steppinout
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 4, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Really?? God forbid someone should have to pay for their carelessness! People that run red lights could be hazardous to the rest of us, hence the hefty fine. Why should we be so concerned they be "warned" about the cameras? Should we have flashing signs warning us of the presence of a patrol car in the vicinity so that we have time to put down our cell phones, buckle up and go the speed limit? And really just how often is a violent estranged husband driving a wife's car, seems that would not be the norm.

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 4, 2012 at 6:21 pm


these cameras are not about safety. They are about revenue generation. Do a few Google searches and you will find out exactly what these cameras are about. They routiniely violate our rights to due process and they get away with it because people don't know any better. Think it's ok to violate our civil rights? Go live in Russia.

If this law is passed with the "hearsay is ok" portion, someone will challenge it and it will be found unconstitutional. As it is.

Like this comment
Posted by nanny
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 5, 2012 at 11:27 am

Another nanny law from Joe Simitian. Why can't drivers learn to take care of themselves instead of relying on Joe Simitian to nanny them?

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 5, 2012 at 6:45 pm

Because Joe Simitian has made his name throught the passage of nanny state laws. They don't actually do anything to make people safer, they just make people FEEL like they're doing something to make them safer. And Joe gets to promote himself as having actually done something besides draw a paycheck.

I've got news for you. It's about distracted driving. That's not just using the cell phone or texting while driving. It's reading the news paper (as I've seen). It's about putting on make up while driving (as we've all probably seen). It's about eating while driving (yep seen that too). It's about eating a bowl of cereal while driving (yes, I've actually seen that - steering with his knees). It's about people smoking while driving (who hasn't seen that?) It's about a hundred other ways people get distracted while driving.

I drive 35,000 miles a year. I can't believe the stuff people do behind the wheel while they are supposed to be driving. If we REALLY want to do something to improve safety we need to outlaw ALL distracted driving. We need to quit picking the easy stuff because it really doesn't address the problem. If Joe wants to REALLY do something of value his next "there oughta be a law" should be outlawing ALL distracted driving.

Like this comment
Posted by Hank Lawrence
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 6, 2012 at 8:11 am

I have seen 2 malfunctions of the red light camera at Ravenswood and El Camino Real in Menlo Park. The first was when I was stopped at the traffic light on the Menlo Avenue side of El Camino Real on a Tuesday night around 6:50 PM and saw the red light camera take a picture of a car while the light was green.

The second time it took a picture of me making a left hand turn from Ravenswood to El Camino Real heading south on a green light.

The Union City police Department got caught shortening the yellow light which creates a danger to the public with increased rear end collisions. The Union City Police shortened the red light from 4.3 seconds to 3.0 seconds. The speed limit on that road is 45 mph.

Web Link

A quote from this web page

"According to a report by the California State Auditor, over 77 percent of tickets are given for violations that happen when the light has been red for less than one second. Motorists who do not have sufficient yellow signal warning are faced with a choice of either running a red light, or slamming on the brakes and risking a rear end collision."

My question: Is the yellow light at Ravenswood and El Camino Real at least 3.6 seconds? 3.6 seonds is the the state law requirement for roads where the speed limit is 35 mph. If it is not then you have a basis for a legal challenge.

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Susan
a resident of another community
on Jun 7, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Mr Lawrence,
I think the speed limit on Ravenswood Ave is under 35 mph. Menlo Ave. is 25 mph and El Camino is 35 mph. The length of the yellow will probably be different depending on which roadway traffic is coming from.

Like this comment
Posted by Alan
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jun 12, 2012 at 10:30 am

Nanny -

If you bothered to read the article, this concerns limiting the power of government - it's not about the nanny state. I haven't followed Simitian closely, so I won't post a general opinion about him. But this law is about making it clear that people don't need to give up their 5th amendment rights.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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