(UPDATE: The original article ran in 2016, but was updated in February 2019.)
Legal loopholes make it possible to escape punishment for a speed- or red-light-camera ticket in Arizona. Hundreds of people, at least, do it successfully every year after being flashed by the cameras. As of February, 19 cities in metro Phoenix had photo enforcement equipment, but only six are actually using it to ticket people: Chandler, El Mirage, Mesa, Paradise Valley, Phoenix, and Scottsdale. (El Mirage is currently scheduled to deactivate its system in July 2019.)
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 more on top of the fine. For instance, Mesa will plunk another $60 on top of a $283 speeding ticket. Scottsdale adds $50.
So it becomes a wager: If you're served, you lose a few extra bucks. But if you "win," you pay nothing. Under state law, the case will be dismissed, with no consequences, 90 days after it entered the court system.
(And take note: That's not 90 days after the alleged violation date. It may be a week or two after, maybe more. This extra time has tripped up many would-be server-dodgers who thought it was safe to open the door...)
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
The city of Scottsdale fights back. If you blow off a violation notice in Scottsdale, the city will file an alternative-service 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. While the city may use such motions in as many as one-third of the cases that require process servers, your case could fall through the dragnet, resulting either in no alternative-service motion, or no process server at all. If the server comes, though, expect to pay more for that ticket.
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, cause the server to lose his or her license. Maybe you could even get your 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 used to be to simply 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, a spouse may not ever receive a notice. Same goes for age mismatches. Private citizens are under no legal obligation to tattle on who was driving their car when it was photographed running a red light.
A few years ago, police recently acknowledged to New Times, cities began taking extra steps to try and ID drivers in the photos. That means this tip could fail you.
In response to recent questions, police now say they do extra research if someone disputes the identify of a driver, comparing the MVD photos of all licensed drivers in a household, or using publicly available databases to match the person in the violator photo.
It's worth pointing out, though, that Tip 1 still applies to anyone receiving a notice of violation in their name.
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.
To give an example, New Times received a letter from a man in 2017 who had received a speeding notice from Paradise Valley. The notice included a photo of him behind the wheel, but was addressed to the registered owner of his car — his LLC. His home address is the same as the corporation's address, but neither his name nor driver's license number appeared on the violation notice. He told New Times last week that no process server ever showed up.
"If I still had the company, it would be a fool proof way to dodge photo radar," he said.
However, as with Tip 7, police have begun identifying some of the drivers in photo enforcement pictures by comparing photos of insurance holders, or even the principal officers of corporations. In another letter received last year, a Scottsdale motorist sent New Times images of a Mesa photo ticket that showed his vehicle was registered to his corporation, but the notice was mailed to his personal name and address. He was indeed the motorist in the violation photo, so it seems that Mesa police conducted extra research to find his name.
The good news, though, is that corporations are still likely getting away without paying most of the time. A 2015 audit by Scottsdale of its photo enforcement system, the most recently conducted in that city, showed that corporations only identified drivers 45 percent of the time.
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.
Problem is, renting a mailbox costs money. If you're doing it just to avoid speeding tickets, you may need to seek professional help for your lead foot.
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.
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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.
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.
(UPDATE: Soon after this article was re-published today, two readers brought up interesting points. One said that registering a vehicle to a trust might help beat the system, too. Another reader asked about masks: All we can say there is that it may work a couple of times, but police don't appreciate people committing multiple violations in masks, and may take action for such repeat offenders as they did in 2009 for a man tripping the cameras while wearing a monkey mask.)