Arizona Cops Researching Your Life Online to Find Who Got Photo Ticket In Your Car

A speed/red-light camera in Scottsdale.
A speed/red-light camera in Scottsdale. Ray Stern
Arizona police have increasingly been digging into online records to find out who's responsible for photo-enforcement tickets.

Cops in several cities that use speed or red-light cameras tell Phoenix New Times they've been doing extra research to find the people in violation photos, beyond simply sending notices asking a car's registered owner to rat out the offending driver.

"It is the goal of the Scottsdale Police Department to [ensure] the driver responsible for the violation is identified," Scottsdale Officer Kevin Watts said in response to New Times' questions. "To that end, we do conduct research and investigation into that identification process."

While law-enforcement computers are used in the process, "over 90 percent of the information is obtained through open-source data websites and software," he said. "Most of the time, it is just old-fashioned police work. In the past few years, the amount of research done has increased as more open-source sites have come available."

It wasn't always this way. Earlier this decade, the photo-enforcement vendor's employees would simply try to match the driver's license of a vehicle's registered owner to the face in the violation photo. A simple gender mismatch would sometimes be enough to disregard the violation and move on to a better-evidenced one, officials had previously said.

When the driver can't be identified, photo-enforced cities mail a photo of the offender to the vehicle's registered owner, demanding that the owner spill the beans. But no law requires the vehicle owners to rat out family members or anyone other driver.

That system led critics of the system to suggest that registering a car in the name of a spouse or corporation might make a driver nearly immune to photo-enforcement machines, which capture both the driver's image and vehicle license plate.

New Times
mentioned this as Tip 7 in the popular 2015 article, "12 Tips for Beating an Arizona Photo-Enforcement Ticket," which was recently updated.

Several motorists have sent letters to New Times over the past year or so, certain that police must have done some research prior to sending a notice of violation in their names, because their vehicles are registered to corporations or other people.

"Hi, I received a camera ticket with my picture in it addressed to my name," a Scottsdale resident wrote last year. "However, the car is registered under a corporation. I sent out the envelope back to the court denying it is me but was declined."

In other words, someone at Mesa courts, where the ticket was being processed, reviewed a photo of the man, compared it to the violator photo, and decided he was not being truthful — it was indeed a match. It's unknown exactly how Mesa officials, who didn't return a message for this article, matched the man to the violator photo.

Potentially, an officer looked up the corporation name on the Arizona Corporation Commission's website, located the names of the company's principals, then compared those to driver's license photos or other photos online. The man's vehicle was insured under the man's name — possibly, Mesa police pulled up the vehicle's insurance information and compared names with photos.

The motorist, who asked not to be identified for this article, ultimately took advantage of the most sure way to beat a photo-enforcement ticket, which we labeled in the 2015 article, "Tip 1: Ignoring a Notice of Violation Can Result in Your Case Being Dismissed."

As many motorists know, Arizona law requires that civil traffic tickets be personally served to offenders in order to be valid. Usually, a police officer hands you a ticket. But photo enforcement notices of violation are mailed. Because of the lack of service, these aren't the actual tickets. Cities ask motorists who have been identified in the violator photo to sign the notice and send it back, disclosing — often in teeny-tiny type — that by signing, they're waiving their right to proper service under the law.

When motorists don't waive their rights and ignore a mailed ticket, the city can choose to send a process server to the person's residence. To count in court, the server must hand the ticket to a person above the age of 14 who lives at the residence. If the ticket isn't served properly, it is dismissed without consequences 90 days after it entered the court system. Read our "12 Tips" article for complete details.

"It just went away and I never had to pay for it," the Scottsdale motorist said this week.

But it might not have gone so easy for him. The man said he never tried to evade any process servers, and that as far he knows, none came to his home. However, Mesa and the other cities that use photo enforcement do routinely hire process servers to track down and find the non-payers.

According to a survey by the city of Glendale last year, (first noted by ABC-15 News), 19 Arizona cities have photo-enforcement cameras, but only six cities currently use them: Chandler, El Mirage, Mesa, Paradise Valley, Phoenix, and Scottsdale. El Mirage, though, plans on shutting off its cameras as of July 1.

Police in Phoenix and Chandler also confirmed they also do extra research to find photo-enforcement violators. Mesa police didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Phoenix Sergeant Vince Lewis said his city's program is supposed to work as follows: "The vendor reviews the violation photo first. If a face is discernible, the letter is sent to the registered owner's address. That person either takes care of it, or sends it back with the actual driver's info. "

Lewis noted that some corporations do tell cities the identity of the offending driver. Car rental companies, for instance, sometimes squeal on clients who get a photo-radar ticket. A survey by the city of Scottsdale in 2015 showed that 55 percent of corporations blow off the request to ID a driver. (A 2017 New Times article revealed that city-registered vehicles also habitually ignore such requests.) Private vehicle owners, naturally, are even less likely to rat out a driver: Only about 4 percent do so, the survey showed.

If the registered owner doesn't send the letter back, or disputes that he or she is the pictured offender, the vendor passes the information to police officers, who do "follow up research," Lewis said.

One tactic is to compare the photos of all licensed drivers attached to the registered owner's address, he said.

Another motorist who wrote to New Times last year apparently became the subject of such research by Scottsdale police. His car is registered only to his wife, he said, but after he got flashed by a speed camera, a notice of violation turned up in the mail addressed directly to him.

"Unfortunately, I just rolled over and paid the fine," he wrote later, when asked about the case's conclusion.

It makes sense that cities are having officers do more research, since each matched photo possibly means more money for the treasury, and to pay the photo-enforcement vendors to keep the cameras clicking.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern