WILMINGTON — It’s no secret that the city’s red light cameras are not popular – no one likes receiving a $50 citation in the mail. But is the discontent with Wilmington’s Safelight Program just sour grapes, or is there something legitimately unfair – or even unconstitutional – about the program?
A string of lawsuits around the nation have targeted red light camera agreements. A high profile, $38.75 million settlement in Chicago resulting from class-action claims was just the latest in a series of issues, including uneven enforcement, late fees added without adequate warning, and yellow light times that fell below the federal standard.
Closer to home, a lawsuit was launched against the City of Greenville and the Pitt County Board of Education, filed in late September as the city’s red light program was just launching. The complaint makes several claims, including that the timing of yellow lights used across the state – and the nation – is fundamentally flawed.
The lawsuit states that that this “claim is not unique to Greenville. It also applies to Raleigh, Wilmington and Fayetteville that also have red light camera civil citation enforcement.”
Lawsuits like “Kozel v. Greenville” have provoked a variety of reader questions about the program. Port City Daily presented these questions to officials from the City of Wilmington’s traffic engineering and legal departments.
Are the yellow lights fair?
The lawsuit’s most relevant claim to the City of Wilmington’s program is the timing of the yellow light. According to Paul Stam, the plaintiff’s attorney in “Kozel v. Greenville,” the issue dates back to 1959; that’s the year several physicists, working for General Motors, came up with a general formula for calculating appropriate yellow light duration.
“The 1959 formula was published was a host of considerations and caveats and explanations, it only applies to straight through or unimpeded approaches. It doesn’t consider turning roads, or roads intersecting before the light, or driver behavior,” Stam said.
In 1965, the General Motors formula was copied into the Traffic Engineer Handbook issued by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, which guides governmental bodies – like the North Carolina Department of Transportation – in establishing standards for yellow light durations. (One of Stam’s earlier clients, Brian Ceccarelli, has written extensively about errors in the current application of the original 1959 formula.)
Related Story: Red light cameras in Wilmington — more than meets the eye
Don Bennett, city traffic engineer for Wilmington, defended the formula and its application.
“If someone had an issue with the yellow light duration, they could take it up with the state, the city doesn’t determine those,” Bennett said. “But, do yellow lights give you enough time to stop? That’s a fair question. But consider that the state uses a very comfortable deceleration rate of about 10 to 11 feet per second, per second (Bennett later specified the exact rate was 11.2 ft/sec2).”
Bennett said the average stopping ability of modern vehicle was more than enough to bring it to a stop before any of the city’s intersections changed lights. He added that, if a vehicle was unable to stop in time for a yellow light, it might not be safe to drive.
“To drive we have to be licensed, and our vehicles are inspected for safety, and – at that point – you might have a safety issue with your vehicle,” Bennett said.
Representatives from American Traffic Solutions have not responded to repeated emails and calls about yellow light duration. According to Brian Rick, spokesman for the NCDOT, the state does use the ITE formula to program yellow lights, though each intersection is addressed individually. Rick provided the latest ITE memo on yellow light programming, which – among other issues – states that left turn lanes, like those mentioned by Stam, are not taken into consideration. (You can read the full 2005 memo at the end of this article).
Appeals and affidavits: what’s the deal?
Bennett said that all citations are reviewed “by human eyes” before they are mailed out.
“People tend to think that these red-light cameras are just spitting out citations, but that’s not the case,” Bennett said. “If we see someone cross into the intersection, they cross the line, but they’re decelerating, and I can see the nose of the car dip down, and then you back up, (we are) probably … going to throw that one out,” Bennett said.
Bennett added that if the vehicle doesn’t match the plate, or if the plate is unclear, technicians will try to enhance the image but won’t send a citation until they are satisfied.
For those who get a citation – and feel they shouldn’t have – the city will hear the issue in an administrative hearing. The hearing includes one of two UNCW professors who volunteer their services to review material, Bennett said.
Part of the appeals process is the affidavit of non-responsibility, a legal document stating the registered owner of the vehicle was not driving at the time of the red-light violation.
Again, things get complicated. Here’s why: the city’s red-light program is authorized by an “enabling statute” (North Carolina General Statute § 160A-300.1) – a North Carolina statute that is not itself a law, but that provides guidance for municipalities looking to author their own legislation. The state’s statute suggests two common sense options for an affidavit: inform the authorities who was driving, or prove the car was stolen (i.e. with an insurance claim or police report).
The city’s code – which is the actual law – is slightly less clear, and appears to allow the recipient of a citation to sign an affidavit without identifying another driver or proving the vehicle car was stolen.
Wilmington City Code 5.46.3 – (Italics for emphasis)
The owner of a vehicle shall be responsible for a violation under this section unless the owner, within twenty-eight (28) days after issuance of the citation, can furnish reliable evidence to officials or agents of the city that the vehicle was in the care, custody, or control of another person at the time of the violation. Evidence furnished by the owner shall include, but not be limited to:
(1) The name and address of the person or entity who, leased, rented, or otherwise had the care, custody, and control of the vehicle at the time of the violation; or
(2) An affidavit by the owner stating that, at the time of the violation, the vehicle involved was stolen or was in the care, custody, or control of some person who did not have permission of the owner to use the vehicle.
This was the option taken by Mike Hartnett, who received a Wilmington red-light citation in July of 2016. Hartnett paid the $50 citation, but then filed an appeal.
“I had to pay the ticket in order to appeal it,” Hartnett said. “But if you read the ticket, and follow the directions, the defense literally jumps off the page at you.”
Hartnett said there are several licensed drivers in his household and none of them admitted to driving on the day of the citation. So, Hartnett wrote out a simple statement using that language from the Wilmington city code.
Hartnett had to attend an administrative appeal hearing. Officials pushed Hartnett to identify the driver, but Hartnett says he declined.
“I said, ‘I’ve signed my affidavit, I wasn’t driving, I’ve followed the letter of the law,'” Hartnett said.
His affidavit was accepted and he received a refund check in the mail. Still, the experience bothered him.
“You’re guilty unless you prove otherwise, which seems wrong,” Hartnett said.
An affidavit like Hartnett’s isn’t always accepted.
Take for example: Damon Southerland, a Wilmington resident who received a citation in late August. Southerland found himself in a similar situation with multiple drivers in his household. Like Hartnett, he wrote an affidavit and sent it in. Unlike Hartnett, Southerland did not pre-pay the citation.
Southerland then received a letter from the city saying that “third party affidavits” could not be accepted.
The letter from Wilmington cites city code, but omits the portion cited in Hartnett’s defense – “or was in the care, custody, or control of some person who did not have permission of the owner to use the vehicle.”
Malissa Talbert, communications manager for Wilmington, said the city could not comment on individual incidents. The city attorney’s office said had not delivered a comment by press time; this article will be updated if and when the office does so.
Can you just refuse to pay?
American Traffic Solutions is responsible for collecting unpaid tickets. According to Talbert, about 80 percent of tickets are successfully collected. However, ATS is not a government body and can’t issue warrants for non-payment, when it comes to the remaining 20 percent, its only recourse is civil court.
But with tens of thousands of citations issued in Wilmington alone, could ATS track down and bring every person who refused to pay to civil court?
Probably not, Talbert and Bennett agreed, but there are other ways to recover money.
“First of all, the City of Wilmington has taken people court,” Talbert said. “But there are other ways.”
As Bennett explained, the city can rely on “debt set-off,” which refers to outstanding citations to the state of North Carolina’s internal revenue service, which according to Bennett has the authority to add unpaid ATS citations and late fees to an individual’s state tax liability.
“Unless you’re just going to refuse to pay your taxes,” Bennett said. “But then, you’ll probably have bigger problems.”
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.
Complaint: William Scott Kozel v. City of Greenvillle, Pitt County Board of Education by Ben Schachtman on Scribd
Lawsuit: Kozel v. City of Greenville, Pitt County Board of Education by Ben Schachtman on Scribd
ITE Memo on Clearance Calculation by Ben Schachtman on Scribd