Following two months in hibernation brought on by a state legal opinion, photo-enforcement cameras are active again in several Arizona cities.
That means it's a good time for a refresher course in beating the system.
Legal loopholes make it possible to escape punishment for a speed- or red-light-camera ticket. Thousands of people do it successfully every year after being flashed by cameras in Phoenix, Chandler, Mesa, Scottsdale, or other Arizona cities.
But to win, you need to know how the game is played.
Having researched the topic for years, New Times hereby offers — free of charge! — the following list of tips and tricks to avoid a photo-enforcement ticket. Just promise to drive safely, then read on ...
Tip 1: Ignoring a Notice of Violation Can Result in Your Case Being Dismissed
By law, after a ticket is filed in court, a municipality has 90 days to nail you. The first thing a city will do is to mail you a notice of violation, asking you to sign and return a waiver (along with, ideally, a check to cover your fine).
No muss, no fuss. But no teeth, either: You have no legal obligation to sign the waiver. That's because state law requires that a ticket must be delivered in person in order to stick.
If you don't sign the waiver, a process server might come to your home.
If the process server catches you at home, you'll pay $25 to $40 on top of the fine. But it's a decent wager to make. Because if you manage to dodge the server, the ticket will disappear from the system 90 days after it went in.
Tip 2: If No One's Home, No One Gets Served
"It's real simple," says Tom Zollars of Superior Process Services. "Don't answer your door."
Generally speaking, a process server can't leave the ticket at your door. Under Arizona law, a citation must be given to the defendant or a "person of suitable age" who lives at the home. (Courts have interpreted "suitable" as someone 14 or older.)
Translation: To improve the odds of success, roommates and family members must play along. If they open to the door to a server, it's game over.
Tip 3: Make It Seem Like Nobody's Home — Ever
Process servers tend to go where they think they'll find their quarry. On the flip side, they may avoid returning to a residence that doesn't appear to provide a likely payoff.
So keep the car in the garage and shut the blinds.
This serves two purposes. One, it makes it look like no one's there. Two, it provides you with a cloak of invisibility. Because if a server sees you inside and recognizes you as the violator, you're done for, even if you don't answer the door. And servers usually have a copy of the violator's driver's license photo.
Video cameras and peepholes can be utilized to distinguish process servers from guests. And if the doorbell rings at an odd hour or on a holiday, take note: It could be the server.
(One caveat to bear in mind: Process servers don't only deliver tickets. They may bring important documents you actually need.)
Tip 4: Beware of Scottsdale
In 2009, having caught on to the tactic outlined above, the City of Scottsdale fought back. If you blow off a violation notice in Scottsdale, the city will file a motion showing that a server attempted to deliver the ticket three times — in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening, all on separate days. Once a judge grants the motion, the process server will tote the citation to your residence and tape it to the front door.
At that point, you've been legally served. Other cities only rarely resort to this practice.
Still, it's not a total deal breaker.
Last year the city used the tactic in about one-third of the cases in which it was necessary to send out a process server, says Darcy Nichols, Scottsdale's photo-enforcement program manager.
Though the remaining two-thirds of cases include violators who were successfully served as well as those who weren't, some cases do still fall through the cracks.
(The city's court staff was unable to say how many of the 43,000 citations Scottsdale issued in fiscal year 2015, which ended last June, wound up being dismissed owing to lack of process service.
Tip 5: Once in a While, a Process Server Might Cheat
How many kids in your fourth-grade class said they wanted to be a process server when they grew up? Process servers tend to get paid for each ticket they successfully deliver. Not to put too fine a point on it, but some may interpret this as an incentive to, shall we say, pad their stats.
You can challenge a bogus process service in court and, if you win, have the ticket thrown out.
In order to keep tabs, you can check the status of a ticket on the state's court site or the court site for the city that sent the notice of violation. If the site shows the ticket has been served but you know better, you should contact the court immediately. (Otherwise, your driver's license may be suspended.)
Tip 6: Live in a Gated Community
Tom Zollars, our aforementioned process-server pro, says he and his ilk tend to have trouble getting past gates that require a code to unlock.
A guard at the gate might open up for an insistent process server with bona fide court paperwork, especially if the server calls police for help. But that same guard could also alert a resident to the presence of a server, giving time for the fugitive to shut off the lights and shut the blinds (see Tip 3) or skedaddle.
Tip 7: This Isn't Your Grandpa's Car, It's Just Registered to Him
One of the best ways to beat photo enforcement is to drive a vehicle that's registered to someone else.
Before sending out a notice of violation, photo-enforcement workers compare the violator's face with the driver's license picture of the vehicle's registered owner. If those don't match, the city may mail a letter asking the vehicle owner to rat on the violating driver, or it may not.
If a husband drives a vehicle registered to his wife, or vice versa, the couple is nearly immune to photo enforcement. Same goes for age mismatches.
Tip 8: Register a Vehicle to a Corporation
Cities often mail notices of violation to corporations (if they don't toss the violations outright), politely asking the firm to identify a violating driver. Such notices can be safely thrown in the trash, because corporations can't be served a ticket that by law must be issued to an individual person.
Don't own a business? Registering a limited liability corporation costs $50 in Arizona.
Tip 9: Don't Use a Home Address When Registering a Vehicle
Anti-photo-enforcement activist Shawn Dow recommends that when registering a vehicle, one should use a private mailbox that has a physical address.
"They cannot process-serve the mailbox place, and they cannot do a motion for alternative service to anyone," Dow says.
It might run you $10 to $20 per month, but it's money well spent if you rack up a photo-enforcement ticket every couple of years. And if you already rent a mailbox for other purposes, registering a vehicle to that address is a no-brainer.
Tip 10: Live Out of State? That's Great!
Cities routinely mail photo-enforcement notices to violators who live out of state. Many such violators dutifully pay up.
You, however, are no dummy.
In theory, Arizona cities could pay process servers in other states to deliver their tickets. In practice, they don't.
Make no mistake: Left unpaid, a ticket issued by a real-live police officer will go into default and stay in the system for years. Not so photo-enforcement violations, which vanish — (see Tip 1) — 90 days after being filed.
Rental-car companies that receive Arizona photo-enforcement notices may identify the driver for police, causing the notice to be redirected to the person who rented the car. If the renter lives out of state, the notice can be chucked with an almost-certain chance of dismissal owing to lack of service.
Tip 11: Use a License Plate Cover
Makers of highly reflective or "light-bending" license-plate covers claim their products can blind a photo-enforcement camera, making the plate impossible to read.
Whether they actually work is another matter.
On Track Manufacturing Corp. boasts that its Original Protector license-plate cover is "designed to defeat conventional photo radar cameras mounted low on the side of the road." An operator at the manufacturing company, however, says the product is not guaranteed to ward off a camera ticket.
Tip 12: Fight the Ticket in County Court
The best way to avoid paying a photo-enforcement ticket is to not run red lights and to always drive less than 10 miles per hour over the posted speed limit.
The second-best way is to read Tip 1 through Tip 11 above.
When all else fails, consider going to court.
Tickets can be expensive. Arizona law requires red-light runners to take Traffic Survival School in addition to paying the fine or signing up for defensive-driving school.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
But savvy defendants sometimes beat the rap. Rather than writing a check, you can request a hearing. A municipal judge will nearly always take the side of the city and its photo-enforcement vendor, whose representative might even testify against you.
A solid argument might win the day. (It would probably help to bring along a lawyer.) Even though the challenge might cost you more than the fine, the satisfaction of beating city hall — and the faceless machines — might be worth it.
(Note: In 2016, the state changed the time allowed for process service from 120 days to 90 days. This story has been updated to reflect the change.)