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Look Who's Getting Caught by Photo-Enforcement Cameras — and Often Not Paying Fines

A school bus registered to Scottsdale Unified School District 48 runs a red light on March 29. No one responded to the notice of violation, records show.EXPAND
A school bus registered to Scottsdale Unified School District 48 runs a red light on March 29. No one responded to the notice of violation, records show.
City of Scottsdale

City bus drivers running red lights. School-bus and school-district drivers violating traffic laws. Government drivers and agencies ignoring photo-enforcement notices.

These are just some of the interesting findings resulting from a recent review by Phoenix New Times of traffic records of the Scottsdale Police Department

One of the most striking revelations was Scottsdale's red-light cameras catching 16 Valley Metro buses running red lights in the first half of 2017, according to the data and accompanying photographs. Half the buses are registered to the Regional Public Transportation Authority (RPTA); the others are registered to the cities of Tempe or Phoenix.

Many of those red-light violation notices were ignored. Other notices were reissued to drivers, with some drivers possibly paying fines and others ignoring the reissued noticed with no consequence. (The city didn't include photos from the front of the vehicles, so you can't see who's driving.)

Records obtained from Scottsdale by New Times on about 3,000 violations from January 1 to June 30 show that many other government-owned vehicles committed photo-enforcement violations, but that the governments often never responded to the notices. (See the accompanying slideshow of 48 of the violators.)

Overall, the records highlight how vehicles that aren't registered to individuals present a special challenge for Scottsdale and other Arizona cities that use photo enforcement, including Phoenix, Avondale, Chandler, El Mirage, and Mesa.

In order to be valid, traffic citations must be served by a police officer or process server. If they're not, or if a violator doesn't waive the right to process service, the tickets must be dismissed 90 days after the citation enters the court system.

As explained by New Times' popular May 26, 2016, article "12 Tips for Beating an Arizona Photo-Enforcement Ticket," it's possible to escape a ticket by dodging the process server until 90 days pass.

Another commonly exploited loophole concerns the vehicle's registration.

Authorities can issue a traffic citation to an offending driver, but not to a corporation, business, trust, or government. Cities with photo enforcement like Scottsdale send such entities a notice of violation (NOV) to the registered owners, asking the entities' representatives to identify the driver who committed the violation.

But no law requires anyone to identify drivers to law enforcement. So most don't. And even if they do, nothing usually becomes of the ticket.

"Only about 45 percent of NOVs issued to corporate vehicle owners are returned with driver information and only about 4 percent of non-corporate owners respond," according to a 2015 audit of the Scottsdale photo-enforcement system.

The most-frequently seen registered owners in the list of 3,000 violators are rental-car companies, some of which identify the violating drivers to Scottsdale, with mixed results in terms of subsequent response.

Many vehicles registered to local companies, churches, or family trusts take advantage of photo enforcement's lack of teeth for such entities, the records show.

For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Neighborhood Ministries, Family of Faith Ministries, Mountain View Baptist Church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, and a national organization called Bless it Forward are just some of the religious organizations that didn't respond to Scottsdale photo-enforcement notices this year.

Yet arguably, the most striking of the photo-enforcement violators are the vehicles registered to governments, because governments issue the tickets. The recent Scottsdale data reveals that local government entities, in particular, could do a better job training their drivers to obey traffic laws, in addition to revamping their systems for how they respond to mailed notices of violation like those from Scottsdale.

Besides the 16 buses running red lights, the cameras and records also revealed that:

• A Cave Creek Unified School District 93 school bus was speeding through a school zone on April 13, and a Scottsdale Unified School District 48 school bus ran a red light on March 29. Nobody responded to the NOVs sent in either case.

• Several transport vans from local school districts and the RPTA, committed speed or red-light violations but typically did not respond to notices.

• The city dismissed a violation notice for the Cleveland Indians Baseball Company before it could become a citation.

• The U.S. General Services Administration-Phoenix and the Arizona Department of Child Safety failed to respond to NOVs.

• Two of 10 violating vehicles that ran red lights were work trucks registered to the city of Scottsdale. No one responded to the NOVs.

• Eight of 10 violating vehicles registered to the city of Scottsdale were "first responders," police officials said. They involved marked and unmarked police vehicles, and a couple of fire-department vehicles. State law exempts police and fire vehicles "in the line of duty" from photo-enforcement citations, but it's not always clear from the photographs whether the vehicles were responding to an emergency with their flasher bars turned on.

Officer Kevin Watts, a Scottsdale police spokesman, said in an email that photo-enforcement notices involving police vehicles are sent to district commanders, who assign a supervisor to investigate each violation.

Police officers don't receive photo-enforcement traffic violations because of the exemption. But "if the employee is found to be driving out of policy, then the employee faces counseling or internal discipline (depending on the egregiousness of the violation)," he wrote.

Police officials were unable to give precise details on what happened in most of the first-responder cases involving Scottsdale-registered vehicles. However, the records show that in the majority of such cases, no one responds to the NOVs.

Similarly, spokespeople with the RPTA and city of Phoenix Transit Department, said their agencies hold their employees responsible for photo-enforcement violations.

"Contracted employees bear the responsibility for the disposition of any violations or fines received while operating a city-owned vehicles," said Phoenix transit spokesman Lars Jacoby.

"At Valley Metro, we work to identify the operator/employee driving the vehicle and then the ticket is reissued to them," said Corinne Holliday, spokeswoman for the RPTA.

Indeed, while some of the RPTA's NOVs were apparently ignored, the Scottsdale records show that most of the notices mailed to the RPTA or Phoenix transit were reissued to a named driver. Yet the records also show that most of those reissued notices may never have been resolved by the violating drivers.

Holliday and Jacoby didn't respond to another request for comment on Friday about the response rate when drivers are identified — or about the danger factor for buses running red lights.

The records obtained from the city didn't contain follow-up information from the city court system, so it's unclear how many of the reissued notices became citations that were then paid by the drivers.

Red-light and speeding citations in Arizona can run up to $250 and add two penalty points to a driver's license, though drivers are usually eligible for defensive-driving school.

Scottsdale's 2015 audit pointed out the problem of unidentified drivers with repeated violations, including as examples an unnamed "local church" that committed eight violations in one year, and a business that racked up 44 violations over three years.

"Repetitive violators could be referred to other police units for review," the audit suggested.

In a December 2015 follow-up to the audit, the city noted that "the new Photo Enforcement Manager has been actively monitoring and working the to Top Violators report. Various sources are used to located these violators and many of them have been contacted by SPD motor officers."

The effort doesn't seem to have slowed down the repeat offenses by city bus drivers, school-district employees, and police officers who may or may not have been acting within their agency's policy.

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