MICHELE NORRIS, host: Los Angeles canceled its red-light camera program this week. It turns out L.A. courts were not following up on citations for running red lights. Many Southern Californians are questioning why a city would issue a fine it didn't plan to collect.
And as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, drivers who got tickets are wondering if they still have to pay up.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Twenty-nine-year-old Nelson Moran says his trouble began last December after making a right turn at a red light, something that's legal in California unless the driver fails to make a complete stop first.
NELSON MORAN: 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 of months later, I received a ticket through the mail.
DEL BARCO: Moran says the ticket included a photo of him at the wheel, along with a shot of this license plate.
MORAN: They're asking for close to $500, which, you know, is a lot considering how tough times are right now with the economy. And unfortunately, I do not have the money that they're asking for.
DEL BARCO: It turns out that paying this kind of red light ticket in L.A. is essentially voluntary.
DENNIS ZINE: If people want to pay, God bless them, let them pay. But if you don't pay, there's no consequence.
DEL BARCO: City Councilmember Dennis Zine, a former LAPD officer, says he always thought the fine was excessive.
ZINE: 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. The courts decided we send a letter out through a collection agency. If you don't pay it, nothing happens.
DEL BARCO: 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.
BLAKE CHOW: The court has taken a 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.
DEL BARCO: City auditor Wendy Greuel found L.A.'s program was costing the city a million and a half dollars a year to operate, but only 61 percent of the citations got 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 councilmember's district.
After her report came out, the police commission, the LAPD and the city council finally voted to scrap the program. But 50,000 citations to register car owners in L.A. are still outstanding.
TONY C�RDENAS: So now people are thinking, do I have to pay the ticket or not?
DEL BARCO: Los Angeles city council member Tony C�rdenas 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.
C�RDENAS: 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. You're going to have to deal with it.
DEL BARCO: 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 Angelinos who already paid their red-light camera tickets.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Five hundred dollars later.
ZINE: There you go.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ugh.
ZINE: That's a lot of money. I heard a lot of people want refunds. We're not giving refunds. It's like once you plead guilty, you pled guilty. You can't say oh, by the way, I don't want to plead guilty.
DEL BARCO: Nelson Moran hasn't accepted guilt or paid his ticket yet, and just heard the news he may not have to.
MORAN: Wow. Really? I'm definitely going to have to look into this. Because if that's the case, this definitely calls for celebration for me, because God knows I have no way to pay this ticket.
DEL BARCO: Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.
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