Toss Your Virginia Red-Light Camera Ticket?

The Washington Post had an interesting editorial last week that mentioned a little-known aspect of the red-light camera program in Alexandria, Virginia:

As The Washington Times reported four years ago, state law says a private company may not simply drop a ticket in a mailbox and expect it to be considered valid service. Unless a driver receives a hand-delivered copy, the citation can be thrown away without consequence. Depriving Alexandria and its revenue-collecting partner of cash is the surest way to ensure this unsafe program disappears for good.

The Washington Times article was referring to the previous red-light camera statute which expired when the red-light camera program sunsetted in 2005 after a report showed that they had a negative impact on driver safety.

Fortunately for motorists, the new statute instituted in 2007 contains very similar language. Here’s the code requiring personal service of red-light camera tickets (emphasis added):

15.2-968.1. Use of photo-monitoring systems to enforce traffic light signals.

G. A summons for a violation of this section may be executed pursuant to 19.2-76.2. Notwithstanding the provisions of 19.2-76, a summons for a violation of this section may be executed by mailing by first class mail a copy thereof to the owner, lessee, or renter of the vehicle. In the case of a vehicle owner, the copy shall be mailed to the address contained in the records of the Department of Motor Vehicles; in the case of a vehicle lessee or renter, the copy shall be mailed to the address contained in the records of the lessor or renter. Every such mailing shall include, in addition to the summons, a notice of (i) the summoned person’s ability to rebut the presumption that he was the operator of the vehicle at the time of the alleged violation through the filing of an affidavit as provided in subsection D and (ii) instructions for filing such affidavit, including the address to which the affidavit is to be sent. If the summoned person fails to appear on the date of return set out in the summons mailed pursuant to this section, the summons shall be executed in the manner set out in 19.2-76.3. No proceedings for contempt or arrest of a person summoned by mailing shall be instituted for failure to appear on the return date of the summons. Any summons executed for a violation of this section shall provide to the person summoned at least 60 business days from the mailing of the summons to inspect information collected by a traffic light signal violation monitoring system in connection with the violation.

Here’s the code for 19.2-76.3 referenced above:

19.2-76.3. Failure to appear on return date for summons issued under 19.2-76.2.

A. If any person fails to appear on the date of the return contained in the summons issued in accordance with 19.2-76.2, then a summons shall be delivered to the sheriff of the county, city or town for service on that person as set out in 8.01-296.

B. If such person then fails to appear on the date of return as contained in the summons so issued, a summons shall be executed in the manner set out in 19.2-76.

C. No proceedings for contempt or arrest of any person summoned under the provisions of this section shall be instituted unless such person has been personally served with a summons and has failed to appear on the return date contained therein.

Essentially it’s saying that they can attempt to mail you a ticket, but if that doesn’t work they have to hand-deliver it in order for the ticket to be valid.

This excerpt from the 2005 final report on Virginia’s ticket camera program sums it up pretty nicely (note that this is in reference to the previous ticket camera statute — emphasis added):

Thus, under Virginia’s red light camera statute as it is now worded, the mere mailing of a citation without personal service by a law enforcement officer does not constitute sufficient notice under the statute’s own terms. While the statute permits the jurisdiction to make the initial attempt to summon the accused to court via mail, if that person fails to respond, he or she is not considered to have been satisfactorily served with notice. Default judgments entered under such circumstances (when the defendant fails to appear in court on the appointed return date) would thus not be binding, and the defendant could not be charged with contempt for failing to comply with such a judgment. Hence, despite its ostensive distancing from the requirements of Va. Code Ann. § 19.2-76, Virginia’s red light camera statute comes full circle and, in the end, requires personal service before a default judgment may be entered against no-shows.

Personal service on all violators is obviously an expensive proposition, involving many staff hours of time, and would defeat one of the primary motivating factors for employing automated detection systems in the first place: a reduction in the number of live officers required to enforce red light laws. (Even the “nail and mail” approach would involve more time, money, and effort than some people would view as warranted relative to the nature of the offense.) Thus, unless a jurisdiction is willing to devote resources to implementing extensive in-hand service, citations mailed for red light camera violations become essentially unenforceable. The average citizen is probably not aware of this loophole, but if word got out on a widespread basis, such knowledge could completely undermine the effectiveness of entire red light camera programs, as citations issued to violators would lose their practical impact.

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