The Santa Monica Mountains are among Los Angeles' most beloved treasures, stretching from the Hollywood Hills to the Pacific, perfect for hiking, biking or just enjoying the view. Aside from a few modest parking fees, visiting is free.
Unless you're captured on camera edging through stop signs erected by park overseers along rustic roads, out-of-the-way parking lots and cul-de-sacs that serve trailheads and scenic outlooks.
That will be $175.
Red-light cameras have been turned off in many California cities because data showed the costly tickets didn't make streets safer. Last year, the presiding judge of Los Angeles Superior Court questioned the constitutionality of camera tickets, which rely solely on photos to prove who was driving.
Los Angeles shut down its red-light camera program in 2011, but the stop-sign camera controversy is just warming up in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Unnoticed by almost everyone when they began generating costly tickets almost five years ago, seven cameras have been planted in Temescal Gateway Park (which has two cameras), Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park (known as Top of Reseda), the Top of Topanga Overlook and Upper Franklin Canyon Reservoir (which has three of them).
The cameras produce revenue for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA). But how much can hikers and nature lovers really generate by rolling through seven stop signs in the parks? Maybe $25,000 a year? Seventy-five grand?
In fiscal year 2010, the cameras collected $2.4 million for the mountains authority.
L.A. Weekly has determined that more than 70,000 motorists in the picturesque mountains have been automatically ticketed since 2007. Despite posted signs, many drivers don't see that, 40 feet behind them, a stop-sign camera photographs their rear license plate if they don't fully halt as they leave the area.
Anticamera activist Jay Beeber describes Joe Edmiston, executive director of the mountains authority and a zealous advocate of the stop-sign cameras, as "like one of those Southern sheriffs who set up speed traps."
Motorists such as film director Liz Rizzo and producer Ted Balaker could hardly believe it when they got their tickets. Balaker, of West L.A., went on a lunchtime drive to Temescal Gateway Park in July 2010. Memories of his hot summertime walk had faded by the time he received an odd notice in the mail several weeks later.
The notice informed him that he had "failed to come to a complete stop" in his Honda CR-V at 12:06 p.m. on July 11. The ticket was issued by something called the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and was signed weeks after his "violation" by a person he'd never set eyes on, Park Ranger K. Hughes.
Balaker says the MRCA sent him a photo and provided a link to a website "where they said they had video of my evil deed." He calls the ticket absurd.
"I was so angry, and was thinking about turning it into a documentary short — my line of work. But, as is probably the case with so many others, I was too busy with work to fight it," Balaker says.
The same thing happened to Rizzo in the very same spot. On June 25, 2011, Rizzo's 1994 Toyota Corolla was captured on camera. She received her ticket from Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. on July 14. It provided a link to a website where, once she entered her license and citation numbers, she could watch a video of her Corolla pausing but not fully stopping at a stop sign situated in a quiet parking lot near nature trails.
Rizzo fought back. "I went to my MRCA appeal and then appealed to Superior Court — which was really difficult to do." She sought help from Beeber, who "sent me the appeal form, which I could find nowhere online."
Rizzo was incredulous when, at her court appearance, employees of the MRCA packed the courtroom. "They showed up with a team," she recalls with wonder. "It was intense!"
The judge ultimately reduced Rizzo's ticket by $75, to $100.
The authority is a so-called joint-powers agency, a partnership between the widely known Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy run by Edmiston and the lesser-known Conejo Recreation and Park District and Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District. The authority installed the seven stop-sign cameras in partnership with camera operator Redflex.
Attorney Allen Baylis, who fights red-light camera tickets in Southern California, says the obstacles to fighting the unusual stop-sign tickets play to the mountains authority's strategy. Beating the agency's tickets, Baylis says, "generally costs [the motorist] more than the ticket, and that's one of the things [the MRCA] relies on: 'I'll just pay it to get it out of my hair.' "
Documents obtained by the Weekly through the California Public Records Act show that before the stop-sign cameras arrived on the scene, park rangers working for the authority wrote 315 tickets during all of 2005. Of those, 57 were for failure to stop and most of the rest were for speeding, usually in Franklin Canyon.