The matter of whether California's dreaded red light camera tickets are legal is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Howard Herships, a retiree from Rancho Cordova, has been challenging $980 worth of right-turn, red light camera tickets he received in that Sacramento-area town last year. The California Supreme Court declined to hear the case in December.
So that opened the door for him to take the matter to the highest court in the land, which he did:
He filed a request for a “writ of certiorari” in the case of Howard Herships v. California. What that means is that the court can decide to take the case by granting “cert,” or not. It has until April 18 to do so.
If it does decide to hear the case, then it could decide for or against Herships. The Supreme Court declines to hear a vast majority of these requests, so we shouldn't get our hopes up.
However, Herships says the case reflects a constitutional question about this contemporary, flashbulb justice:
The Fourteenth Amendment says you have the right to confront your accuser. But how can you do so if your accuser is a camera?
“You have to have a confrontation with the person accusing,” the 70-year-old told us.
Herships notes that in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a man who challenged his DUI conviction because a blood-testing company did not offer up the person who analyzed his results to testify. Essentially, the court said in Bullcoming v. New Mexico, a human has to be pointing the finger.
In that case the firm in question offered up for testimony a “surrogate” who had not originally analyzed the data. Not good enough, the court said in a 5-4 ruling.
Herships, who got to a third year of law school before the Vietnam War required his service, thinks his case is similar: In order to convict you of a red light violation with a photograph, the technician who reviewed that photograph should have to testify against you.
“You have to have the original person there because with Photoshop or other programs you can alter a digital photo,” he said.
Of course, if the court said photo techs have to testify, that could unravel the whole red light camera system across the United States:
Most jurisdictions, including many in L.A. county, use out-of-town firms like Phoenix-based Redflex to automatically mail off tickets when their cameras allegedly catch someone busting through a red.
It would take significant resources to fly a technician out every time someone appeals their ticket.
Herships' Supreme Court filing puts the question like this:
Whether the Confrontation Clause permits the prosecution to introduce testimonial statements of a non-testifying computer technician through the in-court testimony of a police officer who did not perform or observe the printout of the digital photos and videos used as a testimony introduced as the sole basis for the criminal prosecution?
You can ignore red light camera tickets from Los Angeles county jurisdictions because the Superior Court has decided there's no way to prove you received the citations. With traffic tickets, you sign a binding “notice to appear” in court. With tickets mailed to you, there is no such contract.
In a way, the L.A. courts have said if there's not an accuser there (in this case a police officer) to get you to acknowledge receiving a ticket, then it's not 100 percent legit.
The city of L.A. and many other jurisdictions have discontinued their red light cameras.