Many residents of Los Angeles, CA (as well as other cities around the US) have had the unfortunate experience of receiving an automated traffic ticket for driving through a red light. These traffic lights are equipped with high tech cameras that capture a photo of the driver crossing through the intersection when the light is red. The ticket is then mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle, who is assessed a very pricey fine. No police officer is ever involved. One man was so frustrated by these red light camera tickets that he decided to challenge their validity in the United States Supreme Court. This post contains a basic analysis of the case, and of his chances for success.
Howard Herships of California is appealing to the Supreme Court of the United States to hear his challenge of red light cameras and their use in traffic violations. What’s the damage? Herships has amassed $980 in fines from these Robocop red light ticket machines.
The Legal Basis for Challenging Red Light Camera Tickets
Herships challenges his fines based upon the Confrontation Clause of the Constitution. The Confrontation Clause states that a person accused has the right to confront witnesses against him in a court of law.
The issue in this case is whether it is constitutional for the camera technician’s report to be presented in court by a police officer who did not actually observe or perform the print-outs of the digital photos and videos rendered by the cameras. In other words, there is no human witness to confront you in court, but a police officer who did not witness the action steps in on behalf of a high tech camera system that captured the evidence – is this unconstitutional?
Herships argument is that a person’s right to confront his accuser implies that citizens have the right to confront the red light camera technician, and not just the police officer who has no direct knowledge of the facts. The harm is that photographs may be altered, photoshopped, or doctored in order to establish a case, and these are the issues appropriate for the technician, not the police officer, to address in court.
Similar Cases Heard by the California Supreme Court
Although Herships’ case was not taken up by the California Supreme Court, two cases with similar issues have been heard.
The case People v. Goldsmith held that a police officer could read the report produced by a red light technician without violating the right of the accused person to confront his witnesses. The other case, People v. Borzakian, however, came to the opposite conclusion.
The first case is currently up for review, and if the California court upholds the original decision, then Herships’ case may be taken up by the United States Supreme Court. This is because California would then have two cases on the same issue producing different results.
Legal Implications of this Case
So what are the implications of not being able to confront one’s accuser when the accuser is a camera? Well first, if a person wishes to establish a defense against the machine by calling into question the photograph’s authenticity for example, that person would not be able to do so since the police officer acting as the witness against him does not have the technical knowledge required. The police officer would be reading a report produced by the camera’s technician.
Second, an entire case against a citizen could be based on an automated report produced by technology and then read by a person without any direct knowledge of the subject matter of the case. This may be problematic if a precedent is set, and could create a “slippery slope” for future cases based on this type of automated policing.
Will Howard Herships’ Case be Heard in the Supreme Court?
So what are the odds of Herships’ case coming before the highest court in the land? The Supreme Court only reviews 4 percent of the cases that come before it and not even the California court granted review to Herships’ case, in which he is representing himself. It may end up that Herships will have to pay his $980 fine after all. But either way, kudos to Herships for taking it upon himself to challenge a law that has proven troublesome to so many California residents in recent years.
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