Traffic Court, brought to me by Redflex Red Light Cameras and the unlikely fascism of California

27th and Northgate intersection in Oakland, CA

I am where everyone wants to be at 8:30am on a Monday morning, at the end of a long line of aggravated traffic violators waiting for the 15 second interaction they will have with the court clerk assigning them a court room to visit upstairs. So we wait, mostly in silence, staring at the dark orange hexagonal tiles on the floor and rubbing our shoulders against the wall as we slowly move forward.

An hour later, I am sitting in room 603 upstairs. We’re packed in shoulder to shoulder as the court clerk with long dark red hair and fierce facial features resembling Angelica Houston explains that if she sees any food or drink or cellphone usage, we will be kicked out immediately and our case will not be heard. Once court begins, there is to be complete silence.

The room is so warm with bodies, nearly half the people have already fallen asleep before the judge comes into court thirty minutes later. The judge himself is actually quite a pleasant and jovial man. I appreciated his forthright attitude and his interest in explaining the process we would all be going through. I had a bit of hope until the first case came up that was identical to mine and to many others in the courtroom.

It seemed that about a third of all the defendants in the court room that day were there to contest a red light ticket received from one of the controversial Redflex cameras. The mandatory minimum fine for this citation is $480. The judge repeated for the next several hours to each new individual, “you are eligible for traffic court.” But that is an extra $50 for that option. Some took this option, some set up a payment plan to pay in full, others plead not guilty and scheduled another court date to discuss their case.

The only way to not pay at all and not get a point on your license is to take your chances contesting the ticket physically in court. You can contest via written declaration if you don’t have the time to go to court once for arraignment and then again for the trail but you are required to pay the full amount of the ticket at that time; it may be returned to you afterwards. But that seems like quite a luxury.

The Redflex cameras are a major source of income for California. Why is the fee so high? Because according to a San Francisco Gate article, nearly half of the profit goes to Redflex, the private company that owns the cameras. The cameras have been causing such a stir that they have actually been removed from many Californian cities, including Los Angeles, citing the fees as “regressive taxes.” It’s not about traffic safety; it’s about raising revenue for the city and of course, the private middleman, Redflex, also benefits.  Unfortunately, two weeks before receiving my ticket,  it appears Oakland is considering doubling the number of red light cameras in the city to boost revenue.  It’s apparent that the city is not taking into account how much money is spent in the process of fighting these tickets.  In another article, it appears a large police force has started to work overtime in order to review all the fines.  I would love to know an actual number but the only research done on the subject has been sponsored by Redflex themselves and therefore lose all credibility in my eyes.

The particular intersection from which I received my ticket, mailed to me as a surprise two weeks later, was at 27th St. and Northgate. I was turning right onto the freeway ramp and the camera got me. This particular camera alone generates $4.2 million a year in fees.

As I was turning right on red, I felt I had a good case for dismissal or at the very least a reduction. I’ve been unemployed for several months and don’t have the funds to throw at this problem. And honestly, if I did, I wouldn’t out of principle.

So I waited another few hours, until it was my turn to be addressed by the judge. I listened to several ridiculous cases including a citation for possession of tobacco for a man under the age of 18 and another under 18 for crossing the street as a pedestrian on a no-walk sign. Another popular reason for citation among the defendants seemed to be for driving without insurance or without having a license. In many of these cases, the defendant said it was not possible for them to obtain a license. I speculate that they might not be legal citizens. From the judge’s lack of reaction, I got the impression that this was a fairly common occurrence. Oddly enough, the fines for these citations were only between $100 and $200 and awarded no points on their non-existent licenses. But if you get caught running a red light by turning right too quickly, it is an automatic $480, so is getting caught flicking a cigarette out your car window.

When it came my turn, the judge was quite nice and matter-of-fact about the whole issue, appearing to understand the absurdity of my situation. Regardless, I left the court hours later with nothing definitive other than an appointment for another day in court a month later.  The saga continues.  In the meantime, here is a map noting the locations of some of the cameras in Oakland.

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