City's red-light cameras called fraudulent

$10 million suit alleges yellow signals too short

August 20, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A $10 million class action lawsuit filed in Baltimore Circuit Court alleges that the city has been fraudulently sending out $75 tickets to people who it says run red traffic lights.

The allegation is that the signals in question had unusually short yellow lights -- less than three seconds -- that placed unsuspecting motorists under the signals as they turned red. Then, cameras took pictures of their license plates, leading to fines for car owners.

"These car owners are the unwitting victims of a fraud," reads the suit. "The complaint seeks to recover damages for those vehicle owners who ... paid for tickets for which no lawful violation could have been proven."

Alfred H. Foxx, the city's Transportation Department chief, said the suit is without merit.

"We are responsible for the safety of the people in this city," Foxx said. "It would be ridiculous to say we're manipulating a light just to try to catch somebody."

The city has until Sept. 7 to file its response. In the seven-count suit, filed last month, the plaintiffs allege fraud, unjust enrichment and negligence.

Thomas J. Minton, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit, said his aim is to help reimburse motorists who wrongly paid the tickets.

"A lot of people don't challenge tickets," Minton said. "They'd rather pay $75 than sit in court all day."

Baltimore's red-light cameras, first installed in 1999, are run by Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services. ACS gets between $11 and $27 per citation.

Every month about 13,000 tickets are issued to motorists, Foxx said. At $75 apiece, that's $11.7 million a year, although some fines are waived in court.

According to federal guidelines, yellow lights should last about three seconds before they turn red.

More than 30 percent of all red-light camera citations that are contested in Baltimore's traffic court are from signals that have less than three-second amber lights, judges say.

"Roughly a third of the people who come to court with the tickets have a defense of 2.9 seconds or less," said District Judge H. Gary Bass, who sometimes presides over traffic court. "I throw those out."

The way to tell if the amber light is less than three seconds is by inspecting the photos sent to drivers with the $75 tickets. The series of three sequential photos mark the exact time of the alleged infraction.

Maryland legislators passed a law this year that requires yellow lights to last 3.5 seconds if there is a camera at the intersection. Foxx said all 47 red-light camera intersections met the code in May.

He said any yellow lights that lasted less than three seconds in the past were the result of malfunctioning, old equipment.

Foxx also said car accidents have dropped about 60 percent at intersections that have red-light cameras.

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