Thursday, May 12, 2005

Red-light camera ruling stands
State justices refuse to review decision against Costa Mesa.


The California Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to review a lower court's ruling on a red-light camera citation, opening a door for drivers with similar tickets to have theirs thrown out.

The decision upholds the Orange County Superior Court's ruling that voided a ticket on the grounds that Costa Mesa broke state vehicle codes by allowing another government agency to control the signal timing and by failing to give a 30-day grace period for each intersection where the cameras are used.

The city gave only a 30-day notice when it put up its first red-light camera.

In theory, the ruling means drivers with pending red-light camera tickets in Orange County would win their cases if they proved a city violated either of those two state codes, said Bill Kopeny, an appellate attorney not connected with the case.

The ruling is not a binding precedent for other red-light camera tickets, but it's a reasonable prediction that traffic judges in the county would follow it when considering cases, Kopeny said.

Defendants can't quote from the judge's unpublished opinion, but they can cite the vehicle code section that applies, which is 21455.5.

Officials in Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Fullerton and San Juan Capistrano said they also did not give 30-day grace periods at each intersection, but only when they launched their programs.

Santa Ana has cameras at 10 intersections; Garden Grove at seven; Costa Mesa at four; Fullerton at three; and San Juan Capistrano at two, officials said.

Costa Mesa has no legal avenues left in the case and has complied with the ruling, City Attorney Kim Barlow said. "We're disappointed the state court wouldn't look at it, because this matters to a lot more than just Costa Mesa," Barlow said.

Cities all over California interpreted the vehicle code the way Costa Mesa did, she said.

The city gave driver Thomas Fischetti a ticket for about $320 last year for running a red light at Newport Boulevard and 19th Street by 0.6 second.

A traffic commissioner found Fischetti guilty, but he appealed and won. He represented himself.

He admits he ran the light, but says he was behind a semi truck and couldn't see the traffic signal.

The California Department of Transportation controls the signals on Newport Boulevard, where Costa Mesa has cameras at two intersections, because the road was once a freeway, department spokeswoman Pam Gorniak said.

Costa Mesa was issuing about 700 camera-based tickets per month before the appeal. Now, it is issuing only warnings with its Newport Boulevard cameras.

The city uses the cameras to decrease car accidents, Sgt. Rich Allum said. Net revenues were to be used for high school driver education, but there have been no net revenues, he said.

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