In this court, camera never lies Howard judge rejects pleas, fines drivers who ran red lights

May 30, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

So what do you say to a traffic court judge who is looking at a picture of your car going through a red light?

I didn't do it. I didn't mean to do it. It wasn't me. Is this constitutional?

These were the explanations put forth yesterday -- in vain -- by seven of the first 2,562 people charged with running red lights by one of Howard County's 10 new high-tech traffic police: roadside cameras.

All pleaded not guilty. Each was fined $70, which is $5 less than if they had paid the ticket and did not go to court.

Their arguments in Howard County District Court ranged from the convoluted to the philosophical.

Christy Yingling, 36, said she owned the company car that was caught on camera but that one of her employees was driving it. District Judge James N. Vaughan told her that if she did not present the name and address of the driver of the car, she would be fined because she owned it.

How could this be? she asked. A car is an inanimate object.

"So you find the car guilty?" Yingling asked Vaughan after being fined $50 for the ticket and $20 in court costs.

"Yes," Vaughan responded.

Most of the people who have received the tickets -- which were mailed out starting in February -- have paid them, said Lt. Glenn Hansen, who oversees Howard County's program, the first in the state. The tickets are civil citations; no points are assessed. Fewer than 2 percent of those charged have asked for court dates, he said.

The few who were determined to defend themselves against the seemingly indefensible charge got the pleasure of waiting perhaps two hours to present an argument that the judge listened to -- and then rejected.

"When you say [the light] isn't red, the picture just screams out red," Vaughan told one defendant.

Guilty.

To another man who said his brakes locked in a rainstorm, Vaughan said, "The Vaughan maxim of red lights is that every green light will turn red. Anticipate it."

Guilty.

Two people said they had seen the red light but did not go through it. Once the light turned red, they stopped in the middle of the intersection.

Tough luck. The real definition of a stoplight violation, they found out, has to do with the bold white "stop" lines before the light. If you cross the line when the light is red, you are guilty.

Elaine Hercenberg, a kindergarten teacher, said she slammed on the brakes and backed out of the intersection when she saw the light turn red.

"I know I went over the line, but I didn't go through the light," Hercenberg, 46, told Vaughan.

"You crossed the line; that's going through the light," Vaughan said.

Guilty.

Angry and irritated, Hercenberg and the others talked feverishly as they waited in line to pay their fines in the clerk's office. The law is crazy. It's going to cause accidents because people will slam on their brakes at the sight of a yellow light. The county just wants to make money, they said.

"Here we are, stopped, so we wouldn't go through the red light" and we get fined, said Hercenberg, who told her students that she had to take a half-day off so she could go to court and fight the ticket. The students "were very worried. They kept asking me, 'Are you going to jail?' "

Esme R. Benjamin had the most novel explanation yesterday. The retired social worker, who called herself a "little old lady" but wouldn't reveal her age, said she did not remember running the red light and would never do such a thing.

"I really am at a loss at what would have caused me to go through a red light," Benjamin told Vaughan.

"So am I, Ms. Benjamin," Vaughan said.

Guilty.

Pub Date: 5/30/98

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