NMA E-Newsletter #160: Variability and Uncertainty as Deterrence

Many members call us to ask how they can fight their camera tickets and what to expect in court when they do. The short, but honest, answer is it depends.

Some of the reasons for this include:

  • Photo enforcement statutes vary from state to state
  • Courts (even within states) interpret the laws differently
  • Courts routinely disregard the constitutional rights of traffic defendants
  • The system is designed to provide revenue for the jurisdiction not justice for defendants

What results is a capricious patchwork of enforcement practices intended to confuse motorists and to discourage them from standing up for their rights.

At one extreme, there’s Arizona and Virginia. In each state, courts have ruled that camera-based traffic citations must be delivered in-person (personal service), otherwise they are deemed to have not been delivered and can be effectively ignored. (However, any acknowledgement of receipt could be deemed as a waiver of the personal service requirement.)

At the other extreme, there’s Prince George’s County, Maryland, where at least one judge has warned motorists that common, valid ticket camera defenses won’t be heard. A motorist’s only acceptable defense, according to the judge, is to state that he/she was not driving and to identify who was. (Listen to the judge’s whole statement.)

In Washington, D.C. a U.S. Court of Appeals recently rejected a class-action lawsuit that argued motorists were denied their constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law because drivers cited for speeding by metro police faced stiffer penalties than drivers receiving camera citations for the same violation.

In writing for the appellate court, Judge Harry T. Edwards concluded, “The District has decided that the best way to deter speeding is through the creation of some variability and uncertainty in the city’s enforcement schemes.”

But nowhere has “variability and uncertainty” been more on display than in Palm Coast, Florida.

When Ann Paris and Scott Hunter appeared one after the other before Traffic Magistrate Charles Cino, common sense predicted a similar outcome for each. Each was cited for a red-light camera violation, and each had signed an affidavit stating that another person was driving their car at the time.

According to a news account, Cino repeatedly pressed Paris to identify the driver of her car, to which she answered, “I don’t know.” Paris then agreed to pay the original fine of $158 versus the approximately $264 she was facing for taking the case to court. Cino moved to Hunter.

Cino said he would not force Hunter to tell him who was driving and agreed with Hunter’s attorney that it was not his client’s burden to provide that information. Case dismissed.

The only apparent difference in the cases was that Paris represented herself (pro se), and Hunter had an attorney. Courts routinely treat pro se traffic defendants with disdain (e.g., making them wait until the end of the session to present their cases).

One reason the NMA encourages members to challenge every ticket is to demonstrate the inherent unfairness of the traffic justice system. The more people stand up for themselves, the greater the chance for meaningful reform.

So, given the vagaries of the process, how do you protect yourself? First, don’t expect the court to be fair-minded. Second, learn how to fight your traffic ticket. Third, attend a traffic court session before your appearance so you know what to expect. Finally, don’t give up; even if you lost the first round, consider an appeal.

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