Red light cameras spawn debate over enforcement

Are red-light runners caught on tape liable?

THURSDAY, AUGUST 25 2011

By Derrick Perkins

Collecting a $50 fine from scofflaws caught on camera running red lights at three city intersections will take more effort on the part of local law enforcement than originally thought.

Cameras at the intersections of Duke and Walker streets, South Patrick and Franklin, and South Patrick and Gibbon have captured images of motorists running red lights since July. After a month-long trial period, when offenders were issued warnings only, city officials began mailing $50 tickets to violators caught on camera.

Almost as soon as the trial period ended critics raised questions about the program’s practicality. In an editorial blasting the cameras, the Washington Times indicated violators could ignore the tickets — the fines were only enforceable if delivered by a law enforcement officer.

Police officials countered by claiming unpaid fines would be turned over to Redflex Traffic Systems, the Australia-based third-party vendor running the cameras, and sent to a collection agency. Failure to pay could eventually hurt a violator’s credit score, said Deputy Chief Eddie Reyes at the time.

Police Chief Earl Cook stated that “payment of fines is not a voluntary act,” in a response to the editorial. “If violators fail to respond to the violation notice, the matter will be turned over to a collection agency.”

But officials with the city attorney’s office now say the process is more complicated than just referring the claim to a collection agency.

Violators caught on camera will be notified of the outstanding fine by mail twice, at which point the outstanding fine will be referred to a Redflex subcontractor for follow up. If subsequent mailings are ignored, the fine will return to city officials and they will pursue legal action, said George McAndrews, of the city attorney’s office.

That means violators could find law enforcement officials serving them with a warrant in debt for the $50 fine — enforceable only if an officer serves the violator personally or drops it off at his or her residence — but they needn’t fear getting reported to a credit bureau.

Instead, violators can expect a date in Alexandria General Court. Once a judgment is rendered the claim is a legal debt. City officials could opt to put a lien against the violator’s bank account or garnish wages, McAndrews said.

And failing to show up for court dates, unlike ignoring the $50 fine, ultimately leads to an arrest warrant, he said.

Another option would be to bring in another collection agency after the civil suit, though that likely would depend on the volume of ignored fines, McAndrews said. He anticipates handling any scofflaws in-house.

The process is more complex — and convoluted — than police officials originally claimed. The department did not respond to repeated requests for an explanation before the Times’ deadline.

Critics argue the department, and by extension the city, will use the camera program as a revenue generator. It’s an assertion police and city officials have flatly denied since they announced the return of the cameras, which operated until the General Assembly nixed the program in 2005 only to reapprove it in 2007.

If anything, the length to which officials will have to go to collect the $50 fine from scofflaws proves safety, not income, is the driving force behind the program, McAndrews said.

If violators begin ignoring the fines en masse, the city is prepared to go the full measure, he said.

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