Traditionally, an officer would decide whether a driver had run a red light by visually estimating whether the front of their vehicle entered the intersection after the light had turned red. Red light cameras in some areas have made this process much more objective by automatically triggering the camera when a driver passes over a sensor while the light is red. The camera photographs the driver and the front license plate, and law enforcement mails the ticket to the owner of the vehicle. The prosecution will need to show in any resulting trial that the device was working correctly at the time, but this tends to be straightforward.
Generally, the driver is responsible for paying the fine and incurring any related penalties, rather than the owner. Before mailing the ticket, therefore, an officer is supposed to make sure that the driver in the photo matches the person in the photo on the driver’s license of the owner. This does not always happen, and the owner of the car can submit an affidavit to state that they were not driving at the time of the violation. The rule is different in some states, such as New York, which makes the owner of the vehicle responsible for the ticket even if they were not driving.
Rights to Warnings About Cameras
Some states require law enforcement to post signs about the use of cameras. They often must comply with specific rules about making sure that the signs are visible and posted in a certain place. If you get a ticket based on a red light camera, you should check the laws in your state to see whether these requirements apply. You should then check the area around the intersection to see whether the signs were properly posted.
Defenses to Red Light Camera Tickets
To investigate whether you may have a defense to a red light ticket, you should examine the photographs that support the ticket. You may receive these photos with the citation, but otherwise you will need to ask for them in the discovery process. (Read more here about discovery in traffic ticket cases.) You should make sure that the photos clearly show the license plate number of the vehicle and that the driver appears to be you. In some situations, a driver has been able to defeat a ticket by showing that an unauthorized driver was behind the wheel.
If the photos clearly show the license plate and you, one option is to object to the admission of the photos based on lack of authentication. Photos technically must be authenticated before being admitted into evidence, and the prosecution may not have brought someone responsible for maintaining the red light camera as a witness. Getting the photos excluded from evidence should prevent a conviction because there will be no other evidence of the violation. Sometimes a judge will overrule this type of objection, but then you can appeal.
In other cases, a driver might be able to argue that they were trying to avoid serious harm, such as an accident. This is known as the necessity defense. They also might show that the situation was an emergency. Perhaps they were rushing a critically injured passenger to the hospital. An emergency often can legally justify running a red light.
Defenses to Red Light Tickets Without a Camera
In many parts of the U.S., red lights do not have cameras, and the traditional approach still applies. A defense in this instance might involve a thorough cross-examination of the officer to challenge their opinion that they had a good view of your car entering the intersection. Other vehicles or objects usually will obstruct an officer’s view unless the officer was close to the intersection and perpendicular to your car. The case will come down to whether the officer or the driver is more credible. As a result, bringing witnesses who saw the situation as you did can strengthen your position.
Sometimes a common assumption causes an officer to think that a light was red when it was not. In theory, a light should turn red before the light for the perpendicular street turns green. An officer who has a green light thus may assume that a driver who enters the intersection from the cross street has a red light, but this is not always true. Sometimes the timing of the light has been disrupted, so the light for the cross street still may have been green or yellow. You can get a ticket dismissed on this basis if you can show that the lights were not synchronized.