The beginning of last year was hectic for Francesca Cisneros, an energetic young businesswoman who was heading up a new mortgage office in Phoenix.
She was working 12-hour-plus days, zooming around town to meetings with her phone earpiece under her long, dark hair and her Blackberry within arm's reach. Cisneros, 33, was a leadfoot in her 2002 Honda Civic. She wasn't reckless she just had little respect for speed limits. She'd been pulled over once and received photo-enforcement notices in the mail for her speeding in the previous three years, but couldn't seem to break the habit.
Photo speed enforcement
And the mailed notices she trashed them. And they went away.
Three were from Scottsdale; one was from Chandler, where she lived. Mailing a citation to a traffic violator doesn't make it stick in Arizona. Unless a process server delivers it personally, city courts must dismiss the ignored ticket within four months. All four of Cisneros' photo tickets were dismissed this way.
Early 2006 was also an exciting time for the City of Scottsdale, which grabbed national attention for installing speed-enforcement cameras on the Loop 101 freeway in a highly publicized nine-month test program. Six cameras were installed on an eight-mile stretch of the freeway between the 90th Street and Scottsdale Road exits. The city gave speeders a one-month grace period, but warned that as of February 22, anyone caught going more than 10 miles per hour over the 65 mph speed limit would be mailed a citation.
Cisneros paid about as much attention to the new cameras as she had the old ones. Her first recorded violation on the 101 came March 5 at 10:11 a.m., for going 81. Over the next three months, the photo-enforcement system was like a strobe light on Cisneros, flashing her almost every other day as she flitted around town.
Flurries of tickets began arriving in her mailbox. Cisneros stopped checking her mail. And when the box got too stuffed, she got a note saying all her mail was now getting collected at the post office.
She was pegged for 14 violations in March, then nine in April. May was her biggest month, with 33. The cameras caught her speeding four times a day on three days that month. Most of the speeding occurred between 10 a.m. and noon, and between 7 and 9 p.m., when the freeway is less crowded. She eased back during the summer, drawing 14 violations in June and two in July.
The total came to 70 speeding violations for 2006, with 64 on the freeway. Her highest freeway speed was 86 mph. She also got one camera ticket for running a red light.
"There are rules for a reason, I understand that," Cisneros says of photo enforcement. "But it's such an annoying nuisance. The whole thing is about money."
In mid-August, the state Motor Vehicle Division suspended her driver's license. And the police came looking for her one day at her mortgage office when she wasn't there. When she called the number on the card they left, a detective asked her to come down to the station to talk. She did and was promptly thrown in the clink.
"Like a jackass idiot I went down there without a lawyer," she says.
She was released two days later after promising to appear for her court date.
The number of tickets set a record in Scottsdale, and Cisneros was suddenly all over TV news and the Internet, complete with her mournful mug shot.
A plea deal with prosecutors put her in Scottsdale's city jail again, for another five days. Her driving privileges were restricted, and she was ordered to pay more than $10,000 in fines.
Cisneros, who has a bachelor's degree in marketing, complains that she was devastated by the way the media made her look so foolish. She says she turned down interview requests from Inside Edition and CNN.
"It was horrible the most embarrassing thing ever," she recalls.
Much of the media's focus then was on how ridiculous it was for anyone to think they could ignore photo tickets.
"She threw them away because she thought nothing would happen to her," KPHO-TV's Jason Barry told his audience on August 11. "She was wrong."
Actually, Cisneros had the right idea she just took it to an extreme, and she didn't fully understand the game.
Throwing away the tickets works only until the process server shows up. Once the process server delivers the tickets, that's it they have to be dealt with.
David Pickron, who runs AAA Photo Safety in Mesa, says Cisneros "wasn't cooperatively served," but she was served. Pickron hires part-time process servers to deliver photo tickets for all six Valley cities that use the cameras. His employees knew Cisneros was trying to evade them when they would show up at her door with five or six tickets in hand.
He says one server caught sight of her through a sliding glass door and started banging on it, yelling that he was an officer of the court.
"She ran out of the room" and didn't answer the door, Pickron says.
That was all the process server needed to legally drop off the paperwork at her door.
Had she taken more care to avoid the servers, her story might have turned out differently.
On the other hand, had Cisneros been driving a corporate vehicle if her car had been registered to her mortgage company, for example there would have been no story.
No process servers would have come. No court date would have been assigned.
Cisneros would have skated like Wolf & Associates did. The Phoenix law firm triggered 18 photo violations in Scottsdale in the first nine months of 2006. One Loop 101 violation was for going 97 mph.
Repeated calls to the firm for comment were unreturned.
Scottsdale records show that Wolf & Associates, which advertises that it defends people charged in auto accidents and with DUIs, never responded to violation notices. It's not like the firm has a large fleet, either: The MVD says five vehicles are registered to the company.
So while one speeder goes to jail and faces public scorn and ridicule for ignoring multiple tickets, a big law firm does the same thing with no consequence.
The photo-enforcement system is like a bad cop.
It's like a bigot on crystal meth a sleepless, unfair lawman who ignores certain types of drivers as it punishes others.
And it's multiplying. Six Valley cities now use speed or red light cameras: Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, Tempe, Chandler, and Paradise Valley. Glendale and other Arizona cities are considering them.
Because of the Loop 101 program, photo enforcement has been huge news lately in Arizona. Governor Janet Napolitano lauded the program last month and suggested that cameras be installed on other stretches of state highways. On January 30, the Scottsdale City Council voted to reactivate the Loop 101 system. The cameras are slated to start flashing again on February 22.
Authorities insist the public must respect these badgeless auto-police.
You're supposed to pay your ticket promptly when the photograph clearly shows it's you in the driver's seat. If someone else was driving, you're supposed to tattle on that person wife, daughter, best friend, trusted employee, whomever.
Then again, photo enforcement doesn't play fair so why should you ?
Screw the machines.
Savvy motorists have long known that ignoring a ticket can be effective in beating it, and numbers show this is no urban myth. More than 25 percent of the 90,520 people issued photo citations on Loop 101 in Scottsdale last year had their cases dismissed this way.
Knowing the system is the key. Once you do, you can choose what's right for you: opening your wallet with a resigned sigh, or taking countermeasures.
Sure, there are ethical considerations in playing cat-and-mouse with the process server or in putting a glare-producing shield over your license plate. But when the system lets tens of thousands of corporate vehicle drivers get away with speeding and running red lights at all times, it's easy to forget about personal ethics when it comes to photo tickets.
You see, vehicles registered to a corporation, limited liability corporation (also known as an LLC), limited partnership, or family trust are immune to photo tickets. So are public entities like city governments (though some do occasionally pay tickets received from other jurisdictions).
Here's why: The police and courts may send process servers to visit the home of someone who blew off a mailed ticket. But they don't do the same thing for businesses.
Lawyers say Arizona civil traffic violations can only be issued to a real, live person. Since the corporation can't be held liable, there's no reason to serve it the ticket.
Most cities don't send real citations to corporations. They send weakly worded notices that can be safely thrown in the trash. Unlike the grim tone of a citation, which orders the motorist to pay a fine or appear in court on a certain date, the violation notices let the company know up front: "This is not a Summons to Appear. There is no fine associated with this Notice."
The notices sent to businesses gently ask them to identify the driver and mail the form back so a new ticket can be reissued in the driver's name. No law forces anyone to do that, however.
Scottsdale's been mailing such notices for years; Mesa and Phoenix started sending them last year. Tempe sends businesses a letter instead of a citation.
Police do nothing when the notices are disregarded. Granted, police could choose to investigate repeat offenders like Wolf & Associates but they've never done so.
The process is slightly different in Chandler and Paradise Valley, which sends all violators, regardless of the name of the registered owner, a citation. The result is the same, though. Corporations, trusts and government entities that blow off the notices are not held accountable.
Officer Jed Gunter, Chandler's photo-enforcement manager, receives a daily list of violators who ignored their mailed tickets. He asks the court to sic process servers on most of them. But not all.
"If there are any corporations, I just go ahead and X them out, because you can't serve a corporation," he says.
Asked why Chandler never tries to catch repeat corporate offenders, Gunter replies, "I've never thought about it."
Mailing the businesses toothless notices, rather than citations, saves work for police and courts. The reason is, citations, unlike notices, are filed with the court just before being mailed.
If a business ignores a citation, it must be dismissed after four months, like other ignored citations. And if the business identifies the driver, the original corporate citation still must be dismissed from the court. Therefore, court employees have fewer cases to deal with when corporate citations are never filed with the court at all.
After New Times told Elsa Lynch, Paradise Valley's court administrator and part-time judge, how most cities handle corporate violators, Lynch took steps to change the town's photo-enforcement system.
By separating people who could be prosecuted for camera violations from businesses that can't, the court will save time and money, she says.
"I think this is a fantastic idea," says Lynch.
For businesses, trusts and governments, everything about photo enforcement is voluntary.
No surprise, then, that most don't respond to the mailings.
During Scottsdale's highly publicized Loop 101 speed camera test program, which ran from February to October 2006, more than 12,000 notices of violation to corporations, governments and trusts were never acknowledged.
But the city uses speed vans, intersection speed cameras and red-light cameras, too. In the first nine months of 2006, Scottsdale mailed 31,831 notices to business and government entities. About 57 percent never became citations.
A detailed review of the violation data provided to New Times following a public records request showed that cities, Indian tribes, school districts, and federal and state government departments were among the ranks of those that ignored violation notices from Scottsdale.
The cities of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa which use photo enforcement to nail drivers in their cities each failed to respond to two or more notices mailed by Scottsdale. Chandler responded to one notice and blew off another. While some of these were police cars, most were city fleet vehicles.
In other words, cities will hire process servers to track you down if you don't pay their photo tickets. But if Phoenix, Tempe or Mesa get a ticket from another city, they won't necessarily pay it.
Some businesses do sometimes tell police who was driving the vehicle in question. They may not realize the violation notice has no legal weight, or they may want to hold their employees accountable for driving problems. Yet most of these companies fail to respond to at least as many notices as they mail back, either out of apathy or because the notices get lost in bureaucratic red tape.
The same holds true for certain government agencies. The state Department of Administration responded to only three of 19 violations. The state Department of Economic Security let only five of 16 notices get turned into citations.
Liz Barker, a spokeswoman for DES, says the agency hadn't realized its system of identifying speeding drivers was so inefficient until New Times called. The notices apparently weren't notice enough.
Barker said officials would fix the process by putting one person in charge of making sure everyone who got a photo ticket was held accountable.
Rental car companies made up the largest single class of corporate violators in the records. Enterprise identified more than 2,000 of its drivers to authorities. Hertz, on the other hand, managed to identify only seven drivers out of 4,787 who drew violation notices.
Records from Mesa, Chandler and Paradise Valley on corporate violators show similar trends:
Most companies identify either all drivers or none. In some cases, a company might identify one driver out of a dozen or more with violations perhaps because that employee simply wasn't liked by the boss.
Most companies that don't respond to the notices are local.
Companies that ignore the notices are more likely to have multiple speeding violations.
Contractors, dog groomers, churches, housekeepers, limo drivers, medical services, ice cream and pizza shops the companies that trashed their photo-enforcement notices are as varied as the business world itself.
New Times' records search also turned up hundreds of family trusts among the notices; the majority did not identify the photographed driver to authorities.
Perhaps businesses have a legitimate need to speed at times maybe that's the case with AAA Africanized Bee Removal, a Tucson company caught doing 79 on the Loop 101. Privately owned ambulances, like fire trucks, can speed legally in emergencies.
Many companies likely handle the violations internally, and police say they are satisfied if a scolding from a supervisor, rather than a ticket, gets a driver to slow his speed.
But what's unjust is that corporations and public entities have total freedom to choose how to handle photo enforcement and you, the ordinary citizen, don't.
During the Loop 101 program, about 20,000 of the non-servable notices were sent to vehicle owners whose physical descriptions, as kept by MVD, did not closely resemble the drivers in the violation photographs. Less than a quarter of those turned into citations.
And speaking of the actual citations, 10,000 were dismissed after vehicle owners proved they weren't the drivers.
So for the 101 freeway test program, which ended in late October, about 48,000 people paid their fines or went to defensive driving school. And about 59,000 drivers got out of their tickets.
To join that majority, you could form a corporation, LLC, limited partnership, or family trust, then re-register your vehicle to it. It doesn't cost any extra at the MVD, and you get a regular, non-commercial-looking plate.
(Note: MVD won't do the same thing for a simple registered trade name or sole-proprietor business. Without the right paperwork, the vehicle's owner is classified as an individual and individuals can be prosecuted for traffic citations.)
The Arizona Corporation Commission has made it easy to form an LLC without a lawyer (though you may want to consult one). The filing fee is $50, and publishing your articles of incorporation may set you back another $50. With freeway speeding tickets starting at $162, it might be money well spent. Check out the details at www.azcc.gov.
If the LLC is owned only by you, the IRS won't require you to file a separate tax return for it. And as long as the LLC vehicle is for personal use only, it shouldn't cost any more to insure, either.
Even if the corporation shares your name ("John Doe, LLC"), don't worry the photo ticket still goes in the corporate pile.
The easiest way to play the registration game is to put your car under your spouse's name, and vice versa. Drive grandpa's car, or anyone's car but your own.
That is, make the auto-cop's bias work for you.
Or you could be damned skillful at avoiding the process server.
On most days that it's open, the modest Paradise Valley courthouse on Invergordon Road bustles with activity, 80 percent of which is related to photo enforcement.
The small town of immense wealth and hardly any commercial property bills itself as the first in the country to mate cameras, computers and radar on the roads. It's a great way to catch speeders among the tens of thousands of commuters going to or from neighboring Phoenix each day.
Elsa Lynch, who's an easygoing, non-lawyerly judge with pictures of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan hanging in her office, says she heard a few years back that her court was the seventh busiest in the state thanks to photo enforcement. The town has only 13,000 residents.
But flaws in the photo machines surfaced two years after the program began in 1988. The town had been sending tickets by registered mail, believing that would suffice as legal service under the law. That changed after a speeder who didn't sign or acknowledge his ticket won an appeals case in which he argued that putting a summons in the mail doesn't count as service.
Since then, cities have been forced to employ process servers who are bound by court rules. Typically, process-serving companies like AAA Photo Safety contract through a private photo-enforcement company such as Redflex Traffic Systems in Scottsdale, which is employed by Scottsdale, Chandler and Paradise Valley.
The way the program generally works is that once a violation is recorded, the private company collects the electronic data, including the photographs.
At Redflex's nondescript office, workers in black cubicles view the photos and determine whether the picture of the driver and license plate is good enough to use. If so, they forward the information to police and mail out either a civil traffic citation or the above-mentioned notices of violation, depending on the situation.
Police pass copies of the citations (not the notices) to the courts, and the clock starts ticking. Arizona law requires that once a civil case has been filed with a court, proper notice must be given to the defendant within 120 days. If not, the case must be dismissed.
"The court has no jurisdiction until it's served," Lynch says.
Although the dismissal is considered "without prejudice," meaning it can be re-filed, judges and court administrators say that no 120-day dismissal in a photo-enforcement case has ever been reintroduced.
The 120-day dismissal is the Holy Grail for those seeking to get out of a ticket.
Once those four months are gone, neither courts nor police take any further action. Many courts, including Scottsdale's, have search engines on the Arizona Supreme Court's public Web site that allow people to find out whether their ticket has reached this phase (www.supreme.state.az.us/publicaccess/notification/default.asp.)
The time will pass slowly.
Motorists usually get their copy of the citation a week or two after the court receives and files it. Some cities send a second notice after a month, if the first one goes unanswered.
The citation tells people to sign a waiver of process service. But why waive your right to anything? Let them come if that's what they want to do. The rules of the court say that people have a duty to avoid the cost of process service but the only cost is to the defendant. (If the server nabs you, you'll pay the extra fee of about $25.)
At this point, the game boils down to a simple bet: If you win, you don't pay a thing. If you lose, you only pay slightly more money than you would have had to pay anyway. For instance, a red light ticket in Mesa would cost $210 (plus a special eight-hour driving school that costs another $60 or so), instead of $185 and the school.
The process servers don't get the full four months to hunt you down, but the time may vary between cities. In Mesa, the court date on the summons will be about 75 days after the violation date, and the court will waste 30 or 45 days hoping you'll mail back that waiver. That leaves the servers about a month before the court date. If they don't catch you by then, you should be okay.
In Scottsdale, the court date will be less than a month after you receive the ticket. A process server will be assigned to the case about a month after that court date, with a new court date yet another month away. In that case, you can probably start relaxing about three months after you got the ticket. Again, verify your case on the above Web site as often as you like doing so will neither tip the police off to your game nor count as proper service.
Process servers are supposed to follow rules.
They are not allowed to simply leave the citation on your doorstep while no one is home. The law says it must be given to either the defendant or a "person of suitable age" (usually interpreted as 14 or older) who also lives at the home. Provisions are made for uncooperative people like Cisneros, but AAA Photo Safety's Pickron said such cases are rare.
"They all have a story and a plan and a game, so when we come to that door, we are at a high disadvantage," he says. "We have to weed through all of the stories, all the garbage, to see if we can leave the ticket or not."
The server tries to make the best decision, knowing that a judge may review the service in court. If the vehicle in the photo is in the driveway and the server can see the defendant through a window, Pickron says, that's good enough. But if the server is looking for a man, he says, and a woman is behind the window but not answering the door, that isn't good enough because the server can't establish who she is or whether she lives there.
"We don't think everybody's avoiding service," Pickron says. "But then there are times when all the lights are turned on at the house and the garage door's open but all of a sudden the house goes completely black."
Yet there's no reason for the process server to risk his license by leaving the ticket even in that case, Pickron says. The server would move on to the next house in the area, and come back later.
Process servers work part-time, since their quarry is more often home in the evenings and on weekends.
Pickron says servers only go out to the address that matches the vehicle registration, and if that address is no good, they don't bother to do additional research.
Records show that dozens of photo-ticket defendants only have a post-office box listed on their vehicle registration. While MVD allows auto owners to put a P.O. box as their mailing address, the agency also requires a physical address.
But Pickron and police say the MVD doesn't always put the physical address on the registration. So that's another thing a ticket-evader can try give the MVD a P.O. box, if there is one. It will probably reduce the odds of service.
All this said, being hunted isn't for everyone, nor is it always possible to put a plan in practice for avoiding service particularly if you have roommates or a house full of teenagers. Somebody's bound to open the door at the wrong time.
But a reasonable strategy might be to go out more with friends and ask your spouse or live-in not to answer the door unless he or she knows the person knocking. (Not bad advice under any circumstance.)
Some people have lifestyles that make the game a breeze.
"If you're an airline pilot, and you're always out of town, you might get away with it," Pickron says.
One thing to consider is that the process server might cheat. Instead of following the law, he or she might throw the ticket at your doorstep while you're away. Quite possibly, a motorist playing the non-response game would not realize that had happened until after the MVD suspended his driver's license for ignoring service.
But just because you're bending the rules doesn't mean you have to let the process server do it. You can fight back.
Two years ago, Scottsdale resident Sherri Zanoff won her photo-ticket case on appeal after she proved she was on a plane to Costa Rica at the same moment a process server claimed he had handed her a ticket.
Such cheating doesn't happen very often. When it does, the public can file a complaint with the Maricopa County Superior Court. Presiding Judge Anna Baca reviews the complaints. If she decides they're valid, she'll schedule a hearing to find out what happened.
From a photo-enforcement point of view, this means that someone trying to avoid a ticket might get the person trying to serve it fired.
That's what happened last year after one of Pickron's servers went out to the house of Phoenix accountant Al Golusin to deliver a Scottsdale ticket.
Golusin was a bit cagey, even when New Times asked whether he'd received the initial mailing.
"Well, I don't know, maybe I did," he says. "But I can't remember receiving a letter or anything along that line. But if I had, I probably would have disregarded it because of my understanding of the law. I figured I'd just wait for the process server. That was my attitude. I was waiting for the process server."
The server paid a visit at 10:30 a.m. on New Year's Day.
Golusin and his wife, Marla, were at the gym working out. Their friend from Nevada, John Shebanow, was in town for the holidays and had spent the night at their home.
"He was a little hung over," Golusin says with a laugh.
After the Golusins came home, Shebanow told them a man in a white shirt and tie showed up and began ringing the doorbell repeatedly. When Shebanow peered out through the blinds, the man became frustrated and started banging on the door, shouting, "Albert, I know you're in there!"
Shebanow didn't open up, and the man shoved some papers halfway under the front door. When Golusin saw it was his ticket, he called the court to complain he had been served improperly.
When he requested a copy of the affidavit of service from the court, Golusin saw the process server had sworn that he'd left the ticket with an adult female who lives at the house:
"After knocking she came to the window and looked out but refused to open the door after seeing me and stating my purpose. I secured the papers to the door," wrote server Danny Arnett.
Arnett listed the person he served as a Caucasian female about 56 years old, about five foot seven, and weighing 135 pounds. Shebanow was 38 and had a full beard.
As Golusin noted in his testimony at the hearing which Arnett never showed up for Arnett's description closely matched the details listed on Marla Golusin's driver's license. The implication was that Arnett wrote whatever he thought it would take to make his affidavit meet legal requirements, knowing that what he was stating was false.
Baca ruled that Arnett had violated court rules, and his license was later revoked. Court staff members say only one or two complaints about process servers come in each month. That figure rose slightly during the Loop 101 program, but most of the extra complaints were about Arnett, court staff says.
Arnett, a Gilbert resident, says that's not true. Other process servers have received far more complaints than he has, he says.
If the affidavit says a woman peeked out of the window of Golusin's house, that's what happened, and Golusin is a liar, Arnett says. Asked how he could have established that the woman, if that's who he saw, was a resident of the home, Arnett replies, "Here's how: Obviously people are very childish and try to hide between windows and doors and try to hide behind kids."
Ironically, given his former line of work, Arnett says he didn't attend the hearing because he wasn't notified properly he says he never received the letter telling him the hearing date.
"The judge violated my civil rights," Arnett says. "The judge said it was certified mail, but was never able to produce a signature."
Golusin, for all his troubles, still had to pay his ticket.
"I went to the trial," he says. "I said, 'I don't think I should even be here.' [The judge] said, 'The person in the photo looks like you, and I think you should be here.' I said, 'Irrespective of that, I wasn't legally served. He said 'We're not going to talk about that today.'"
They didn't. Case closed.
"Unfortunately, it wasn't really worth my time and money to file an appeal," he says.
Whether or not a city judge gives you a fair shake on the question of proper service, filing a legitimate complaint against a process server is a good way to strike back at the photo-enforcement system.
Keeping process servers honest means more people will legally evade their tickets.
The best way to beat a photo ticket is not to get it in the first place.
Always drive less than 11 mph over the posted speed limit.
In school zones, don't exceed 15 mph.
Don't run red lights.
But if those precautions don't work out and you feel the warm touch of a traffic-camera flash, the citation may never come.
About half the violations recorded by photo-enforcement systems can't be used at all because of sun glare, focus problems, and other technical glitches. The system doesn't do well with big rigs, since the cameras are set up to frame the license plates of normal-size vehicles. Mexican license plate? No problema, amigo. The photo-enforcement company doesn't waste postage on such tickets.
The trick is to find your way into this rejected pile because of factors you can control.
For instance, motorcycle helmets don't just protect your brain in a crash a good helmet makes face identification almost impossible.
Drivers have been photographed wearing masks while mooning or flipping off the camera at high speeds. Those pictures are forwarded to police, who may investigate repeat cases.
The most popular defensive tactic against traffic cameras (besides registering a vehicle to a corporation) is the clear or translucent license plate shield that has exploded in popularity in the last couple of years.
Then there's Photoblocker. Joe Scott of Phantom Plate in Virginia says his company has sold more than 500,000 cans of the clear spray that is supposed to reflect the light of a camera flash like a mirror, making the license plate unreadable. The company also sells plastic shields that purport to do the same thing.
A Denver TV news crew did a spot on the spray and other products a few years ago with the cooperation of the police department, which set up a speed van on a closed track. If the newscast is to be believed (see it at www.phantomplate.com), the product worked as advertised.
Commander John Lamb of the Denver Police Department, however, says the experiment was hardly scientific. If the police had done a test, Lamb says, "it would be much more effective than some Fox 31 bimbo driving through the thing."
He admits the spray did put glare on the plate, as the newscast shows. But he still thinks it's a rip-off.
At $30 a can, he might be right. For sure, none of the companies that sell these products guarantees you won't get a ticket.
"A can of [lacquer] would do the same thing," Lamb says.
Phoenix police say they put a few of the products through the wringer in an unpublicized test about four years ago, after the city had installed its first red-light cameras, and neither the shield nor the spray worked.
A perfect test of the shield and spray under real-world conditions would have to involve the photo-enforcement companies. If the vendors have conducted such tests and know the products work, they aren't saying.
What is certain is that they attract unwanted police attention on the road. The sprays are invisible, but the shields could make a vehicle's license plate illegible to live police, which is a ticketable offense in Arizona.
Public records show that police in cities with traffic cameras do occasionally stop and cite motorists for having an obscured license plate. A cop who doesn't appreciate what the shield is for may pull you over because of it.
That happened twice to one local Corvette driver, who used a type of shield that allows the plate numbers to be read only when directly behind the vehicle. (A bill now before the state legislature aims to outlaw such shields.) The driver, who did not wish to be named for this article, says she's positive the shield kept her from getting tickets on Loop 101.
But the second time she was stopped, the officer took pictures of the plastic shield for evidence and wrote her a $90 ticket.
"So I took it off," she says. "And lo and behold, on the frickin' 101, I got a $188 ticket."
Soon after your photo ticket comes in the mail, or possibly before, you'll get an advertisement from Joe Geremia of Angelfire Enterprises, who wants to charge you $65 for advice he says will help you beat the rap.
A few years ago, Geremia won a court ruling that forced cities to hand over the names and addresses of all ticket-getters. He's not making millions off his paid advice he lives in a Glendale mobile home but he says he makes a profit.
Geremia's info is accurate, but the "product" is grossly overpriced. Responding to the come-on gets you four printed pages containing Geremia's feelings about photo enforcement and instruction to hide from the process servers, who come in the evenings and weekends.
You already know that now. You just saved $65.
One source of good information, though, is a book by Scottsdale attorney Susan Kayler called Smile for the Speed Camera: Photo Radar Exposed!
Assuming you've tried everything but still got served and have a court date, you may find Kayler's book and Web site (www.photoradarlaw.com) of special interest. They give detailed instructions on various defenses to use at your hearing. For example, most posted speed limits are soft in Arizona, giving motorists the privilege to drive at "reasonable and prudent" speeds.
Although judges usually consider anything over the speed limit unreasonable, since speed limits are based on traffic-engineering studies of what the road can safely handle, people frequently squeak out of tickets with this argument. If the road is not crowded, no kids are playing on the sidewalk and it isn't raining, the judge might have mercy on you.
Losing the hearing means you can't take defensive driving school to avoid penalty points on your license. But the odds of losing aren't as bad as you might think. In a recent six-month period in Paradise Valley, the court found 142 defendants responsible in photo cases, while another 184 were either found not responsible or had their cases dismissed at the hearing. Nine more people were found responsible but didn't have to pay fines.
Some cases are thrown out at the hearing before the judge gets involved because the motorist convinces the state's witness (a police officer or an employee of the photo-enforcement company) that there is no case.
Lenny Montanaro, Mesa's court administrator, says he's seen red-light camera pictures that captured a microsecond when both the yellow and the red lights were glowing at the same time. Although the police may push those violations through the system, he says, they are dismissed "in a split second" when the motorist shows the picture on the hearing day.
The lesson: Take a good look at the photo before paying the fine.
As with all things legal, you'll stand a better chance with a good lawyer by your side.
No one knows that better than a lawyer, which is why Phoenix attorney Craig Gillespie decided to ask Susan Kayler for help after he got zapped. In October 2005, the pair persuaded Maricopa Superior Court Judge Margaret Downie to toss Gillespie's ticket on a technicality.
Their argument hinged on the fact that citations are issued before any connection is made between the driver and the owner of the vehicle. State law requires an officer to certify there are "reasonable grounds" to believe the person listed on the ticket committed the infraction. But with a photo ticket, the officer's signature is a computer-generated image. The officer is real, but he or she had nothing to do with policing the violation.
At Redflex and other photo-enforcement companies, clerks use the license plate in the photo to look up the address of the vehicle's registered owner. But they don't have access to MVD photos, so no positive ID is made before a citation is sent out.
"There is no human involvement in the certification process whatsoever," Downie's ruling states, adding that the procedure clearly violates Arizona law.
While this seems like a bombshell that could overturn the whole photo-enforcement system, the appeal involved the facts of one case and is not considered a precedent-setter by the city courts.
Scottsdale prosecutor Caron Close says that well before the Gillespie case, Redflex clerks compared basic MVD information about a person like gender, height, weight and hair color. They didn't always note for the legal record that such a comparison was made, though, and that's where prosecutors ran into trouble, she says. They've since corrected that problem.
Still, none of the cities compares the person in the violation photo with a driver's license photo before the citation is issued.
In Chandler, for instance, Officer Gunter says he makes no comparison at all. If the person and license plate are clearly pictured, he'll have the citation sent out. The vehicle owner, if he was not the driver, then must sort it all out.
Gillespie and Kayler believe it's possible to win more appeals based on the "no human involvement" premise. If the company can't establish how it tried to link the vehicle and driver, "it's the exact same argument, and a winner," Gillespie says.
The message here is that if you are willing to pay a lawyer to appeal your case and you can get it heard by a judge like Downie, considered soft on photo enforcement you could get your violation dismissed. But how many of us have the time and money to go all the way over a $185 ticket?
An appeal isn't always necessary. Even drivers with no real excuse and no defense can beat the ticket, or at least get its impact mitigated, at a city court hearing.
After Mesa City Councilman Mike Whalen got flashed while running a red light at Stapley and University drives in October, he chose to fight the system. The first thing he did, though, was to promptly mail in the waiver of his right to service.
"It would have been embarrassing to get served at a City Council meeting," he says.
His explanation to the judge at a recent hearing was that he thought he was already in the intersection when the light turned red, so he kept on going. He blames a "little old man" in a car in front of him who slowed down.
Whalen, a former police officer and assistant police chief in Mesa until 1999, knows how the camera system works. If the magnetic sensors under the road detect your vehicle past the imaginary curb-corner-to-curb-corner intersection lines as much as a millisecond after the light turns red, the camera flashes. He knew it was probably a valid violation.
Whalen says an officer he knew told him, "'You're toast on this sure you don't want to go to defensive driving school?' I said, 'No, you know, I'm going to roll the dice.' So I rolled the dice, and I lost."
Yes, and no. Whalen was ordered to attend Traffic Survival School, an excruciating ultra-basic driving class for losers who get red-light tickets and DUIs. But the judge suspended his fine of $185.
Whalen says he doesn't think the judge gave him any special treatment. "I don't even think he knew who I was," he says.
Mesa issued another red-light camera ticket in the last few months to former Arizona U.S. Attorney Mel McDonald. He rolled the dice with a hearing at roughly the same time as Whalen, though he had no defense.
"I went because I wanted to make sure the equipment was operable and tested and everything else," McDonald says, which means he was looking to beat the charge on a technicality. "It's my own policy that I will never, without a hearing, just walk in and write them a check. I want to challenge them."
McDonald lost. He's appealing his case in Superior Court.
Traffic cameras slow vehicles down. Researchers say they reduce serious injury crashes.
A draft report to Scottsdale by Simon Washington, an Arizona State University professor, states that the eight-month Loop 101 speed camera program slowed average speeds from about 74 to 64 mph. When the cameras shut down in late October, the number of motorists going faster than 76 mph jumped from 130 to 1,260 per day, per camera, as measured by pavement sensors.
Washington's report states that rear-end collisions increased on the affected section of freeway during the program, but that the number of crashes overall and, most important, their severity appears to have decreased.
Though he concluded that more research must be done, city and state officials seized on the report as evidence that photo enforcement should be expanded, leading to the January 30 vote in Scottsdale to turn Loop 101 cameras back on.
Washington's final report is expected this spring.
Larry Talley, a traffic studies analyst for Mesa, says he saw similar positive trends in crashes when he checked into the effectiveness of red-light cameras, which are more accepted by the public in polls than speed cameras.
But the question of safety is different from that of credibility, which could be taken into account when deciding whether to exploit the weaknesses of photo enforcement.
The fact that red-light cameras may make Mesa roads safer sure didn't stop Councilman Whalen from fighting his ticket.
Besides, less legally painful methods make roads safer, too. Talley says installing left-turn arrows makes major intersections far safer than putting in red-light cameras.
Then there's the profit angle, in which cities are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Scottsdale earned $800,000 from the Loop 101 program, mostly from ticketing people going less than 80 mph. The city expects to earn hundreds of thousands more in the coming months. Speeders weighing their options with a ticket might consider why they'd want to help enrich a wealthy city like Scottsdale. On the other hand, Mesa lost $200,000 on its program in 2005. Could that money have been better spent elsewhere?
Meanwhile, the photo-enforcement companies and the state, which taxes the fines cities make off all traffic tickets, make money even when the cities don't. The 2006 nine-month freeway program alone earned $2.3 million for Arizona in such taxes. The companies' cut of the tickets is a quarter or more of the fine.
Why not adopt the attitude of state police, who see Loop 101 speed cameras as major annoyances?
Before Scottsdale activated its Loop 101 test program, city officials pondered what to do about the violations by law enforcement vehicles that inevitably would be recorded. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Arizona Department of Public Safety didn't want to see the violations, city officials say, so Scottsdale honored that wish.
The deal allowed patrol cars to speed freely when speeding was justified for their work and also when it was not.
Police vehicles draw only the same toothless violation notices that corporations receive, and could eighty-six them just as easily. But the deal to ignore notices struck at the heart of the system's credibility. While municipal police routinely hold their own officers accountable for photo violations, checking call logs and making them explain their actions, the DPS and the Sheriff's Office seemed to be saying, "Do as I say, not as I do."
Sheriff Joe Arpaio denied he was part of any deal, while the DPS remained mum on the question.
Once Scottsdale began forwarding the violation notices to the DPS, the agency felt compelled to investigate each one to make sure officers had a valid reason for speeding. But it didn't mean they had to like it.
DPS Commander Tom Woodward says patrolmen found the Loop 101 cameras onerous. He said they may have put the public's safety at risk.
"It deterred officers assigned to the East Valley from working that area," Woodward says. "We still responded to calls, but officers were not in that area working traffic proactively as much as they were prior to photo enforcement."
To recap: Corporations don't have to pay. Family trusts don't have to pay. Cities that use photo enforcement ignore photo tickets from other cities. Lawyers and former police officers contest valid tickets just to see if the judge will let them off. State police are willing to put public safety at risk because it's so demoralizing to explain why they were speeding.
But if you, the ordinary schmo, get caught by the cameras, you're supposed to bend over and take it.
To make the system more even-handed, lawmakers could make vehicle owners liable for the tickets rather than drivers, as with parking tickets.
Denver went this route a few years ago, eliminating penalty points and lowering fines to make its program more palatable to the public. The Denver PD's Commander Lamb says lawmakers in his state gutted photo enforcement out of concern for the Big-Brotherly nature of the system. Now, it's an on-your-honor program, he says. If people don't pay their tickets, no one cares.
Arizona lawmakers debated a similar system a few years ago, but insurance companies lobbied against it, saying they needed to know whether their customers were driving poorly and getting tickets.
This "vehicle liability" method has its own drawbacks a big one is that some people would be punished for violations they didn't commit. But it would be fairer to everyone.
Whether the Arizona Legislature will or even could close all the loopholes remains an open question. But when two Republican lawmakers heard from New Times that responding to notices was voluntary for corporations, they took notice.
"It is clear that there are enforcement issues that need to be addressed," says state Senate president Tim Bee. "That should be a priority before we hurry to expand it statewide."
State Representative Kirk Adams, who is sponsoring a bill this year that would allow motorists who get photo tickets to take defensive driving school more often, says he had no idea corporations have such a choice.
"It's certainly something I want to look into," says Adams, a Mesa Republican. "It makes a case for a police officer on the streets writing tickets as opposed to cameras [doing it]."
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Photo enforcement, as it now stands, seems only likely to increase. Mesa is boosting the number of intersections with red-light cameras. Scottsdale's freeway program is cranking back up. Napolitano wants the cameras on other state highways.
More motorists than ever will be getting tickets.
And more corporations than ever will smugly disregard their notices.
Flash! What are you going to do?