One of Los Angeles' 32 red light cameras.
One of Los Angeles' 32 red light cameras. Nick Ut/AP
Los Angeles did away with its controversial red light camera program this week. It turns out L.A. courts were not following up on the citations. But some ticketed car owners are still wondering whether or not they should pay the hefty fines.
Twenty-nine-year-old Nelson Moran says his trouble with the cameras began last December after making a right turn at a red light — something that's legal in California, unless a driver fails to make a complete stop first.
"I looked, there were no cars coming, so I figured I had my right of way. I made a right turn, and that was it. A couple months later, I received a ticket through the mail," Moran says.
Moran says the ticket included a photograph of him at the wheel, along with a shot of his license plate.
"They're asking for close to $500, which is a lot, considering how tough times are now with the economy," he says. "And unfortunately, I do not have the money that they're asking for."
'If You Don't Pay It, Nothing Happens'
But it turns out that paying this kind of red light ticket in L.A. is essentially voluntary.
"If people want to pay, God bless them, let 'em pay. But if you don't pay, there's no consequence," says City Council member Dennis Zine, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer. Zine says he always thought the fine was excessive.
"We're not telling you to disobey the law, but in reality, if people do not pay that citation of $400 plus, almost $500, there's no issue of a warrant for your arrest; it doesn't impact your driver's license, your insurance, nothing," Zine says. "The courts decide [to] send a letter out through a collection agency; if you don't pay it, nothing happens."
LAPD commander Blake Chow says other moving violations are issued directly by a police officer to a driver. But the red light camera tickets are different.
"The court has taken the position that the individual driving is not necessarily the registered owner of the vehicle. The only thing that ever would happen is that citation would go into a file or database in the court, but never reported to the DMV, not going on a credit record," Chow says.
City auditor Wendy Greuel found that L.A.'s program was costing the city $1.5 million a year to operate, but only 61 percent of the citations were paid. She says the program didn't necessarily reduce traffic collisions and that the 32 red light cameras weren't even at the most dangerous intersections — just politically placed in each council member's district.
Ticketed Drivers In Limbo
After Greuel's report came out, the Police Commission, the LAPD and the City Council finally voted to scrap the program.
But 50,000 citations to registered car owners in L.A. are still outstanding.
"So now people are thinking, 'Do I have to pay the ticket or not?' " says Tony Cardenas, an L.A. City Council member. Cardenas pushed hard to keep the red light camera program, which he thinks made the streets safer. He's advising ticketed drivers to pay their fines.
"The courts are still keeping it on the record, which means if you get a ticket later on and go to court, it's going to pop up on the screen, [and] you're going to have to deal with it," he says.
But some drivers are gambling that the overstressed L.A. traffic courts won't bother following up in the future. Councilman Zine says there are now a lot of frustrated Angelenos who already paid their red light camera tickets.
"[$500 is] a lot of money. I heard a lot of people want a refund; we're not giving refunds. It's like, once you plead guilty, you plead guilty. You can't say, 'Oh by the way, I don't want to plead guilty.' "
Moran hasn't accepted guilt or paid his ticket yet, and he just heard the news he may not have to.
"Wow, really?" he says. "I'm definitely going to have to look into this, because if that's the case, that's definitely cause for celebration for me, because God knows, I have no way to pay this ticket."