Image Problems

It turns out there's a pretty easy way to beat those darn photo-radar tickets, if you don't mind living underground for a few months

Lilly is living on the lam these days.

Lilly—not her real name, for reasons that will be obvious momentarily—got busted by one of the city's red-light cameras a few months back as she was making a left turn at 22nd and Wilmot. She ignored the citation that arrived shortly thereafter in her mailbox and is now dodging any process servers who might try to deliver the court summons in person.

If she can keep winning the cat-and-mouse game for the next few weeks, she'll be in the clear. And so far, it's been easy: She says she hasn't seen anyone even try to serve her.

It's not the first time she's gone through this. A self-described "pretty bad driver," Lilly has gotten three tickets from the cameras in recent years and hasn't paid any of them.

"They only have 120 days to serve you," Lilly says. "Who can't hide for 120 days?"

Lilly's case isn't unusual in the world of Tucson's traffic-safety camera program, which includes two mobile vans that move around town several times a day to bust speeders and fixed cameras at eight intersections to nab speeders and people who run red lights.

If you've ever seen the dreaded camera flash, you know the drill: Your picture has been snapped by a high-tech system and you may now be facing a steep fine, points on your driver's license and/or a long day in traffic-survival school.

After your photo is taken, your case is reviewed first by an employee of American Traffic Solutions, the private company that provides and maintains the traffic cams. If the evidence shows a violation, a TPD officer looks it over to decide whether you deserve a ticket. For a speeding violation, you have to have been going at least 11 miles above the speed limit and the officer has to match your face with your driver's license photo. On the red-light violation, you get a ticket if any part of your car has not entered the intersection before the light turns red or if you're driving more than 11 miles above the speed limit. Both systems also issue tickets if you're not wearing a seat belt.

Once the officer has signed off on your ticket, it's mailed to you. But that's where the legal situation get tricky: Just mailing someone a citation is not considered to be a legal serving of a summons to appear in court; technically, such a summons must be delivered in person. The city gets around that wrinkle by having you waive your right to a personal summons when you mail back your plea.

And there's a time limit: The city has 120 days from the date of the citation to serve you.

When you get the citation in the mail, you're warned to mail it back within 30 days of the infraction. If you don't mail it back, your case is turned over to a process server, who then has 90 days to personally serve you or a member of your household. And if he catches you, an extra $37 fee is attached to your fine. (The fee is higher if you have to be served outside Pima County.)

But thousands of those legal summons are never served, according to an audit of the traffic program. In fiscal year 2012, for example, 13,636 violations were dismissed—and the vast majority of those were people who managed to avoid being served, says Tucson City Court Administrator Christopher Hale.

That's more than the 9,113 violations that resulted in drivers accepting responsibility for violating a traffic law and just below the 14,226 that resulted in violators completing defensive-driving school. (Another 2,870 violations were properly served but ignored—which results in a suspension of your driver's license. And a relatively small percentage of violators—accounting for just more than 2,000 tickets last year—asked for a court hearing to fight the charges. They are typically unsuccessful in their arguments before a city magistrate.)

Since the first cameras were installed in 2007, more than 41,000 violations have been dismissed because people who got tickets in the mail successfully avoided being served. In the same time frame, drivers have accepted responsibility for 37,440 violations, while more than 63,000 violations have filled up seats in defensive-driving classes.

In other words, about one in four violations since the program began have been dismissed, often because because the driver was able to elude the process server.

Lilly got her first two tickets in the same place—along Broadway Boulevard just east of downtown. She says the speed limit is just 30 miles an hour there, which she calls "ridiculous, in my humble opinion." But getting two tickets has changed her driving behavior, although perhaps not in the manner than the police hope for. Rather than slowing down, she says, "I don't even go down Broadway anymore. I go down 22nd Street."

Lilly isn't home a lot, which makes it easier to avoid process servers. She didn't have any problems with her first ticket—"I just threw it away and they never tried to serve me, as far as I know"—but when she got her second one, she nearly got busted when her adult son, who was living with her at the time, opened the door when the process server knocked. But once her son realized who was at the door, he denied knowing anything about Lilly and the process server left the house. (Lilly is quick to note that she did not coach him to do any such thing.)

Lilly noted a strange car outside her place a few times after that, so she took the precaution of driving down her alley and entering her house through the back door. Once, someone knocked at her door, but she just ignored it.

With her latest ticket, Lilly hasn't seen anyone come by to try to serve her.

Lilly says she's shared her experiences with friends who get tickets and told them that if they're going to ignore the summons, they had better not answer the door if a stranger comes knocking. But she recalls that one friend slipped up.

"He couldn't help himself," Lilly says. "Someone came to his door and he answered it and he got served."

There are other tricks to avoiding tickets (other than the most obvious, which include not speeding and not running red lights). You can register your car under the name of a business, which makes it harder for the authorities to match the traffic cam's photo of you with your driver's license. You can register the car you drive the most in your spouse's name and the car your spouse drives the most in your name, and likewise try to foil proper identification of the driver. You can even wear a mask every time you're behind the wheel, although that seems to be an extreme strategy. (In one infamous Maricopa County case, a driver racked up more than three dozen tickets while wearing a gorilla mask.)

And sometimes, you can actually beat the ticket in court, although it's no easy thing, given that there's fairly damning video evidence when you run a red light.

John Brown, a local insurance agent, was one of the few who managed to win in a court hearing. He got his ticket dismissed in City Court after he was able to establish that the process server did not properly serve his ticket.

Brown says the process server showed up at his house and tried to serve his 14-year-old daughter. His daughter answered the door but then shut it once she realized she didn't recognize the process server, who proceeded to leave the ticket under Brown's doormat and called it a legal service of the summons.

Brown fought the ticket on the grounds that his daughter was not old enough to properly be served—and even if she was, the process server failed to handle the process correctly. He said his daughter never told him about the ticket and he went on a vacation on the night it was served. By the time he found the summons, it had been buried under a big pile of leaves on his porch.

While he prevailed in court, Brown got so worked up about the ticket that his new hobby is battling photo-radar enforcement. He's gathered news clips from around the country examining how companies and city councils have colluded in bribery scandals or adjusted the technology to unfairly bust drivers. He's taken note of jurisdictions that have dumped the cameras. He's hit the law library to determine what kind of loopholes exist to fight the tickets.

He doesn't understand why conservative state lawmakers in Phoenix haven't put a stop to the program, or why left-leaning Democrats on the Tucson City Council don't find "ramrodding people through the court system for profit to be reprehensible."

Brown admits that if he calculated his time by the hour, it would have been cheaper to just pay his tickets.

"My time is much more valuable than this," he says. "I got this compulsive behavior from my mom."

Brown's mother used to fight city hall when she saw an injustice, such as poorly built homes or malfunctioning drinking fountains in schools.

"I'm not good at it," he says with a laugh. "She would stick with it much longer than I would."

But Brown is sticking with his campaign against the red-light cameras. He believes they are primarily a money-making scheme for the camera companies and a revenue-generator for the city, all hidden behind a veneer of traffic safety.

Tucson Police Department Capt. Robert Shoun, who works on the photo-enforcement beat, has heard all the complaints from people who dislike the cameras.

"In general terms, it seems like many folks are in favor of traffic enforcement until they become the subject of the enforcement," Shoun says. "I pretty much equate the camera complaints right in line with the complaints that 'The cop was hiding,' or if the cop wasn't hiding, 'Why wasn't the cop out there catching murderers and rapists instead of stopping me for traffic?' I don't think people are ever happy when they are being caught breaking the law, and the traffic laws are out there."

Shoun says the cameras are on the job to improve the safety of the streets. He points to a number of factors: Traffic collisions have dropped at the monitored intersections from 137 in fiscal year 2011 to 85 in fiscal year 2013. And the fact that there are so few repeat offenders indicates that the cameras change driver behavior.

It's also safer for cops, says Shoun, who has worked the traffic beat on a motorcycle. He says busting red-light runners on a motorcycle can be hazardous work because cops have to drive into heavy traffic to pursue traffic scofflaws.

Plus, there's the ruthless efficiency of the cameras, which function 24-7 and bust nearly everyone who runs a red light. There's no way that a police patrol could hope to duplicate that level of consistent enforcement.

Contrary to what some critics say, Tucson has not seen an increase in rear-end collisions as a result of drivers slamming on their brakes to avoid getting a ticket at the red-light intersections, according to Shoun.

On the revenue side, the city has come out ahead on camera enforcement, although the numbers aren't that big, according to the city's audit of the program. Last year, the city netted about $1.1 million from the cameras, once you subtract the payments to the contractor (which totaled more than $1.7 million) and the various costs to TPD and the courts. Over the five years that the cameras have been in business, the city has netted just under $6 million, while the contractor has been paid $5.3 million.

Another big winner: the state of Arizona, which has collected more than $6.2 million over the last five years through various surcharges.

Shoun says the priority of the program isn't to raise money but to get drivers to be more careful on the roads.

"The bottom line is, drivers just need to learn to, No. 1, be observant of what the signals are showing," says Shoun. "And No. 2, when the light turns yellow, instead of choosing to keep going for the gas, put your foot on that brake and stop."

But no argument about safety is going to sway the opinion of photo-radar foes like Brown, who wants the cameras to "go away."

Brown is getting his wish when it comes to the 11 cameras scattered around Pima County's roads.

Last month, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry recommended that the county let its contract with ATS expire in January 2014. Unless the Pima County Board of Supervisors votes to overrule his recommendation, the cameras will be coming down next year.

Huckelberry said the cameras were installed in 2009 to see if they would have any effect on how fast drivers were going on roads in unincorporated Pima County. But two recent studies from the county's Transportation Department and the Pima County Sheriff's Department concluded that while the rate of traffic accidents was on the decline, "they're down more in locations that don't have traffic cameras than they are at traffic-camera sites."

The county's fixed cameras did have an impact on drivers' habits: At first, people started slowing down in areas where the cameras were placed. But, Huckelberry notes, "people got used to where they were, so they'd slow down when they got to them and then they'd speed back up."

Most of the money from the cameras ended up going to either the state of Arizona or ATS.

"The state takes probably half of it right off the top," Huckelberry says. "Then you have to pay half of what you have left to the vendor. Then we're left with, I don't know, $60 or something like that, and we have to incur all the court costs and process-serving costs that goes with it. So we probably net $300,000 or $400,000 a year out of it, but we also get the bad name that goes with it. It's not worth the hassle and the adverse reaction from the public."

Huckelberry said county officials considered getting mobile vans similar to the ones that the city uses, but Sheriff Clarence Dupnik balked.

"The sheriff wants no part of it," Huckelberry said. "He said, 'You can have one but don't put our logo on it.' Well, then, who's going to issue the tickets?"

But city officials are not likely to follow the county's lead. In this year's City Council election, the cameras came up at a few candidate forums. All three Democrats who won re-election last week said they supported the cameras, although both Steve Kozachik and Karin Uhlich said that they'd like to see some changes in how intersections are defined to make the ticketing more fair to Tucson drivers.

"I agree with Frank Antenori and others that the definition of the intersection does need to be changed," Uhlich said. "We shouldn't prey on people's confusion about intersections. It really needs some work."

It's a rare day when you see Uhlich agreeing with Antenori, the hard-charging conservative former state lawmaker who fought to restrict the cameras when he served in the Legislature.

"If they want to agree with me, hey, cool, thanks for the agreement," Antenori said. "But the reality is, they're agreeing, as I am agreeing, with adopting the standard used in 48 other states."

The technical details are a bit complicated, but to break it down simply: Arizona law defines an intersection as the area defined by the curb lines. That's different from other states, which follow what's known as the Manual of National Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which calls for intersections to be defined as the area within the lines that appear before crosswalks.

As a result, Arizona intersections are smaller, so it's easier to bust violators who would otherwise been considered to have been at least partially in the intersection before the light turned red.

Antenori's bill to bring Arizona's definition of intersections in line with Manual of National Uniform Traffic Control Devices passed the Legislature in 2012, but Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it, saying that the "law enforcement community has been very clear that widening intersections will increase the possibility of collisions."

The biggest critic of red-light cameras on the Tucson City Council is Ward 2 Democrat Paul Cunningham.

"I'm not a big fan of them," says Cunningham, who got three tickets within a year at the intersection of 22nd Street and Wilmot Road.

Cunningham, who got the tickets before his appointment to the City Council in 2010, says the first two tickets came in the first week that the cameras were set up to issue tickets.

Cunningham said he separates his personal experience with the cameras from his opposition to them—"I thought it would be inappropriate for my personal experience to cloud my judgment"—but he adds that citizens can take a real beating from fines and points on their licenses.

"People can rack these things up pretty quick and they're out $3,000 or $4,000," Cunningham says. "It's $300 for the ticket, plus going to traffic-safety school, plus whatever your insurance goes up. We have people who may lose their jobs over these tickets."

Earlier this year, the City Council extended the yellow light at some intersections in an effort to compensate for the smaller intersections in Arizona law. As a result, Cunningham says, "We're not giving away as many unfair tickets."

While he doesn't think he'd be able to persuade a majority of his colleagues to dump the program when the contract with ATS comes up for renewal, he would like to see a citizens initiative to get rid of the cameras.

"I'd love to see it put on the ballot and let the Tucson voters decide whether to keep the cameras," Cunningham says. "I'd vote to get rid of them for sure."

Cunningham isn't the only one who would like to get rid of the cameras. Lilly, who will be dodging her process server for the rest of the month, says she is uncomfortable with the idea of being under government surveillance.

"On the one hand, I do see how it's useful," Lilly says. "People probably do drive slower if they know photo enforcement is around. I just grew up with Big Brother—1984 was a required read in my high school. I don't think it's right that they're photographing us out there. It's like that first step on the slippery slope."