Investigators: Documents reveal judges' dismissals of red light camera tickets


by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 Investigators

Posted on March 15, 2010 at 11:09 PM

SEATTLE - There's new criticism of some of those red light cameras placed in Seattle. It's not coming from citizens, but from the City’s traffic judges.

New documents obtained by the KING 5 Investigators show the city knows judges have been throwing cases out of court but has continued to issue tickets.

Traffic cameras caught the images earlier this year when a red Volvo blew through the light. The camera rolls video too, which clearly shows the violation at NE 45th Street and Union Bay Place near the University of Washington.

When the driver went to court to contest the ticket last month, she didn’t have to say a word.

"Let me start off by saying this particular setup at this location is illegal," Judge Francis DeVilla said on an audio transcript, “because it more than two arterials feeding into it.”

The judge dismissed the ticket, citing the state's red light camera law, which says cameras are "restricted to two-arterial intersections."

The typical two-arterial intersection has two main streets that cross. But at 45th and Union Bay there's another street intersecting, 45th Place, making it a three arterial intersection.

Thousands of red light infractions have been issued from the busy and confusing intersection even though a KING 5 records request shows judges started tossing tickets last summer and put the city on notice.

Records show municipal Judge Adam Eisenberg may have been the first to do it.

In a June hearing, attorney Steve Rosen fought his ticket from 45th and Union Bay.

Judge Eisenberg's ruling: “I'm very familiar with the intersection. I think there's three major streets intersecting at that point. I'm going to grant the motion to dismiss."

The city appealed and Rosen settled.

But the transcript filed by the city for that appeal did not include entire courtroom conversation, which we uncovered in the court reporter's documents.

Judge Eisenberg says at the end of the hearing, "I think judge DeVilla feels the same way…" indicating judges previously discussed the intersection. To which the prosecutor responds, "I have to go tell the city to take that camera down."

But the cameras were still up months later when Diane Hievert got a $124 ticket.

She considered fighting the infraction. After learning about the legal controversy she thinks it's unfair the city might break the law to enforce the law.

“I think they have a money maker and they're taking advantage of it," said Hievert, of Fall City.

It is true that this could be a million dollar intersection with nearly 10,000 tickets issued since three cameras were installed here less than two years ago.

Judges DeVilla and Eisenberg would not tell KING 5 how many of these red light cases they've thrown out or if other judges are doing it, too.

Even though the courthouse is just across the street from city hall the judge's views are miles apart from the city legal department.

Assistant city attorney Greg Narver says the city hasn't shut the cameras down because it believes the judges are wrong.

“The fact there's a third arterial extending away from that intersection doesn't do anything to change the fact two arterials cross there and it's a major intersection," says Assistant City Attorney Greg Narver. “We respectfully disagree with the Judge’s dismissals.”

While the cameras may have some critics the Laurelhurst neighborhood pressed for them to put an end to rampant, dangerous red-light running.

“The majority of people love them,” says resident Jean Amick. “I would say 95 percent of people obey the law and the scofflaws should have some consequences for the safety of all."

Legislators and staff in Olympia couldn't tell us why the "two-arterial" language is included in the law.

The city attorney's office says it believes this controversy should be decided by a higher court than the city's municipal court.

"There's nothing that automatically sends notification to us,” says Narver. “If we know about them we would appeal them."

However, our records request turned up an e-mail about yet another dismissal which hasn't been appealed.

The city would have to face off against Terry Paanane, a former high-ranking traffic engineer at the Washington State Department of Transportation, whose ticket was dismissed in January.

He supports red light cameras but complained in e-mails the continued use of cameras at the intersection makes the city look like it's "above the law."

After KING 5 began its investigation, the City Attorney’s office said it has started working with the municipal court to get more consistent notification about these cases when they are dismissed. That way it can appeal the dismissal and have the case heard in superior court.

It’s unclear how many other 5-way intersections in Washington State have red light cameras on them. There’s one in Burien and 1st Avenue South and SW 160th. The City of Burien says there have been no legal challenges to the more than 800 red light tickets issued there.