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Red light cameras, kicking and screaming

By   /   July 13, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Red light cameras are in trouble in Texas, but don’t expect cities hooked on the revenue they generate to give up without a fight.

Red light cameras are taking a beating in Texas, but don't expect cities to just let go.

Red light cameras are taking a beating in Texas, but don’t expect cities to just let go.

A district judge in Richardson last week awarded more than $27,000 in attorney’s fees and a summary judgment to a Keller man who argued the ticket he received in 2012 and the camera system used to issue it are unconstitutional.

Russell Bowman has expanded his personal ticket fight to a class action lawsuit involving 48 Texas cities, including Austin. Bowman, an attorney, is also suing the cities of Diboll, Magnolia, Plano and Willis in separate actions to invalidate their red light camera systems.

Public dissatisfaction is building slowly, with cities like Hutto putting the fate of red light cameras to a vote in November. Voters in Arlington, Baytown, College Station, Conroe, Dayton, Houston and League City have ended their contracts with camera vendors by wide margins.

A grassroots effort, Trash Your Ticket, has had success encouraging people who have been cited to refuse to pay the fine, knowing most cities have no enforcement arm for their civil penalty programs.

Nationally, three dozen cities and 16 states have gotten rid of their red light cameras and in only three instances did voters in their cities decide to keep them.

Round Rock at the end of last year decided not to renew its contract after its own research showed the cameras did not reduce collisions at high-traffic intersections, the industry’s main sales pitch.

Judge Dale Tillery’s knocking down procedural arguments and finding Bowman’s constitutional argument valid might well become the template for all future red light camera lawsuits, Bowman told Watchdog.

“It’s a first step,” Bowman said. “We still have a long way to go.”

Having battled for more than two years, Bowman acknowledged his first step might be a small one. The Richardson city attorney’s office late last week emailed Bowman to say the city intended to continue to operate the cameras while deciding if it will appeal Tillery’s ruling.

The city has until the end of this month, but will almost certainly appeal, Bowman said. “I think they’re making so much money, my decision isn’t a factor.”

For all of the talk by municipalities and the camera companies of public safety, hundreds of millions of dollars in citation revenues are the reason reform is coming so slowly.

While interest in keeping track of revenues shared equally by cities and the state has waned, the state has collected at least $200 million over the past five years.

And while the Legislature nobly intended at first to use the revenue to fund trauma centers around Texas, the money has been siphoned off to pay down state debt.

Legislators have been little more interested in turning off the spigot than municipalities. For the past several sessions, bills to ban red light cameras have breezed through the House only to get lost in the Senate.

In the 2015 session, advocates made a point of winning support in the Senate, according to Byron Schirmbeck, Texas coordinator for the national Campaign for Liberty. But the bill died in the House Transportation Committee, headed by El Paso Democrat Joe Pickett.

“What happened in the House in the last session showed that all those House votes in the past were just for show,” Schirmbeck said. “They love to kick cans down the road with the excuse that they should let the local folks decide.”

Kelly Canon, who lobbied hard for a statewide camera ban in the last session, said advocates have a powerful new weapon in Bowman’s decision.

Canon, vice president of the Arlington Tea Party, helped lead a petition drive that put red light cameras to a referendum in May 2015, and the cameras were resoundingly rejected.

At the same time Canon and her force were finding cities with red light camera contracts frightened that a ban would rob them of revenue to pay their contractors.

The fight in the House was further complicated by Pickett’s bizarre political hit on Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, whose support for the camera ban got chewed up and spit out in an unrelated transportation issue.

So vituperative was the attack, Schirmbeck said he believes the success of any camera ban bill in the House will depend on House Speaker Joe Straus’ decision to appoint Pickett to another term as Transportation chairman or move him somewhere else.

Bowman expects his lawsuit against the city of Willis to get a hearing sometime after the session starts in January 2017. And he expects city attorneys to throw up procedural roadblocks to his class action lawsuit.

In his suits, Bowman is asking not for damages, but for reimbursement to people issued red light tickets he contends are unlawful. It could be three years before the suit makes it to the Texas Supreme Court, he said.

Bowman is prepared to take it down the line.

“I looked at all these defenses before I started,” Bowman said. “I have a declaratory judgment that these cameras are unconstitutional.”

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Mark Lisheron was a former Austin-based reporter for Watchdog.org.