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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane red-light cameras ‘fleecing’ drivers, some say

Chris Gray knew he would lose, but at a Spokane Municipal Court hearing earlier this month, he wanted to make a point.

Two months earlier – at 7:18 p.m. on Nov. 19 – Gray was driving on Thor Street when he stopped at a red light before making a right turn on Second Avenue. But a red-light camera caught him stopping well beyond a white line marked on the pavement.

A ticket soon arrived in the mail demanding $124. It’s the second time, Gray said, he’s gotten a ticket from a red-light camera for stopping beyond the painted line before turning on a red light.

At the hearing, Gray argued that there are obstructions at the intersection that make it safer to stop beyond the line.

“The full momentum of my car stopped,” Gray told Court Commissioner Jerry Caniglia. “You cannot see oncoming traffic unless you inch forward.”

But Caniglia ruled against Gray. Drivers must stop before crossing the white line. If they need to, they can inch out beyond the line after they stop, he said.

“Unfortunately, the law says you do need to stop before the white line,” the judge said.

The city has a financial incentive for enforcing right-turn violations. American Traffic Solutions’ contract with Spokane guarantees that the city won’t lose money, but that guarantee is revoked if the city doesn’t enforce rules about illegal right turns on red.

Gray was one of 22 people who showed up to contest or mitigate their red-light camera tickets that day. Of those, all but three chose to mitigate their ticket and no matter their reasoning, the judge lowered their fines to $100.

Some in the courtroom that day didn’t know the strict rule in state law about stopping before the white line. And the city has not aggressively maintained white lines at many intersections not enforced by cameras. At the four intersections adjacent to Interstate 90 at Thor and Freya streets, red-light cameras enforce three of the eight approaches into the intersections. The city has maintained the white lines needed for camera enforcement, but most of the other lines at approaches not enforced by cameras, including crosswalks, have faded, some almost completely.

About 40 percent of infractions caught by city cameras are for turning right on red without stopping fully.

Spokane police Officer Teresa Fuller, who runs the city’s red-light program, says she hears many complaints that the program is too focused on “California stops”: only slowing down to turn on a right light. But she says there’s good reason for enforcing rules on right turns. In 2009, for example, about a quarter of the 88 pedestrians struck by vehicles were hit by drivers turning right on a red light. One pedestrian was killed.

It’s not clear why Gray was ticketed. Fuller said she doesn’t generally issue violations if a stop is made after the white line unless pedestrians were crossing. But at the hearing, Gray and another woman who also was ticketed for stopping beyond the white line were ticketed, contested, lost and were ordered to pay their full fine, $124.

Only one man won his case at the hearing after swearing under oath that he wasn’t driving his car when the camera caught it running the light. Caniglia dropped his fine.

Many mitigating or contesting their tickets shared Gray’s assessment of the program: “Sometimes I feel like it’s for the revenue, for fleecing folks,” Gray told Caniglia.

Grace Gremillion, who had her fine reduced, called the cameras a “fear tactic.”

Derek Babcock, the man whose ticket was tossed by the judge, said he was grateful for the opportunity to have the ticket thrown out since he wasn’t responsible. But he doesn’t support the program.

“There’s too much Big Brother,” he said.