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Speeders Not Smiling at Pasadena’s Radar Camera

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Times Staff Writer

A picture is worth a thousand words, according to the old proverb.

Well, in Pasadena it’s worth about $60, and some motorists are hopping mad about it.

Since June, the Pasadena Police Department has been using a device called the Zellweger Uster photographic Doppler radar, which detects speeding vehicles and snaps a photo of the license plate and the driver’s face.

Although the vast majority of the 1,344 motorists who have received citations are expected to pay their fine or go to traffic school, 10 have decided to fight their citations in court.

The first challenges are scheduled to start Tuesday in Pasadena Municipal Court.

Some of the defendants are unsure of how they will fight the machine, and one woman said she may resort to begging for mercy.

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But one man, Joseph L. Logsdon of Pasadena, is spending more than $1,000 to hire an attorney to fight the Swiss-made “robocop.”

Help Offered

Thomas D. Hogue, Logsdon’s attorney, said he believes use of the machine violates the U.S. Constitution and the state vehicle code.

Hogue said his firm has put two attorneys on the case and he has received calls from other attorneys who want to help fight the photo radar.

Hogue said he has even received a few calls from irate citizens who want to donate money for Logsdon’s defense.

Logsdon’s case comes to trial Sept. 8.

“The momentum is building,” Hogue said. “It’s becoming a tempest in a teapot.”

Pasadena is the first city in the state to use the photo radar. The only other city in the country using it is Paradise Valley, Ariz., which has been using it since October.

The photo radar is a combination of standard traffic radar, a microcomputer, a camera and a flash unit.

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A police officer dials in the speed limit, and the device, mounted inside the back of a car, photographs anything traveling faster than that.

In addition to the vehicle’s speed and the driver’s face, the photograph includes the date where the picture was taken.

The information is later printed out and sent to the registered owner of the vehicle. The photo is stored in case of a legal challenge.

260 Photos an Hour

The device can take 260 photos an hour--a blur compared to the average of two to four tickets an hour that an officer could write.

In two months, 1,344 motorists in Pasadena have received photo radar tickets, according to Traffic Monitoring Technologies, the Friendswood, Tex., company that distributes the machines in the United States.

Of those citations, 794 cases are pending, 252 drivers have paid fines, 189 have signed up for traffic school, 10 plan to challenge them in court and 99 have not responded.

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Police Sgt. C. E. Gray believes the device has had a noticeable impact on traffic accidents.

For example, accidents in June decreased by 8% compared to June, 1987. Although there is no way to tell for sure, Gray said he believes the main reason is the photo radar.

“It’s doing its job as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I think it’s here to stay.”

But the assessment of the machine has been less rosy in other quarters.

“It’s Big Brother of 1988,” Logsdon said.

Hogue said he plans to argue that photo radar is a violation of an individual’s constitutional right to due process. Most drivers are unaware that they have been ticketed by the machine because they are not stopped by an officer.

The driver, as a result, often has no recollection of the incident and so is unable to mount an adequate defense, Hogue said.

Also, it takes at least a week to receive a violation notice in the mail, and the delay may make it even harder for a person to recall the circumstances of the incident, Hogue said.

The circumstances are important, because in California drivers can be convicted only if they are driving beyond what is considered a “prudent and reasonable” speed.

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Under the state’s basic speed law, drivers are allowed to go faster or slower than the posted limit depending on road conditions.

If it is foggy day and visibility is poor, drivers could be cited for speeding even if they are driving below the posted limit. A driver also could legally exceed the posted limit if visibility is good and there is no other traffic at the time.

Issue Rejected

“After a few weeks, how is anyone supposed to remember where they were driving and whether if was safe or unsafe?” Hogue asked.

Assistant City Prosecutor Christopher Smith said the city rejected the due-process issue as unfounded.

Smith said the photograph and the testimony of the officer monitoring the machine can establish what the prudent and reasonable speed limit was at the time.

The photo would also remind a motorist about the driving conditions so they can defend themselves, Smith said.

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Besides, Smith said, “when a person violates the law, they know it, they’ll remember.”

Hogue said he also believes the city has deployed the photo radar illegally.

According to state law, any vehicle primarily used for traffic enforcement must be clearly marked to alert drivers that they are being monitored.

Mounted in Chevy Blazer

In Pasadena’s case, the machine is mounted inside a white 1988 Chevrolet Blazer with a tan stripe on the side and the Pasadena Police Department emblem on the doors.

A driver usually would see only the rear of the car, which Hogue said looks like “what a den mother uses to take the Boy Scout troop to the beach.”

But Smith said use of the machine is legal because not only is the car marked but also a flash goes off every time the machine takes a picture.

“You know why they didn’t see the car? They were speeding,” Smith said.

Besides the legal arguments, Logsdon said he opposes the machine because it strikes him as a sneaky way to increase city revenues.

“It’s just another way to raise money for the city,” he said. “Why tax us when they can crucify you with the photo radar?”

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Tickets Tripled

The number of traffic tickets issued by the Police Department has tripled over the last two months, from about 325 a month to more than 1,000.

But Lt. Robert Huff, head of the department’s traffic section, said the city has made little, if any, profit on the machine.

Traffic Monitoring Technologies leases the machine to the city for a maximum of $18 a ticket.

On a $46 speeding ticket for someone driving 11 to 15 m.p.h. above the posted limit, the county and the courts get $27.80, Traffic Monitoring Technologies gets $18 and the city gets 20 cents.

“We are not making lots of money on this,” Huff said.

Logsdon, whose fine is $68.50, said he probably will not appeal the case if he is found guilty because he doesn’t have the money.

“But if I won the Lotto, believe me, I’d take it to the United States Supreme Court,” he said.

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Most of the other defendants have decided to take a less lofty approach in challenging the photo radar.

‘This Is a Farce’

“I’m not saying I even have a defense, I’m just protesting it,” said Roseann Kohn of Pasadena.

Kohn said she is unsure of how to fight the machine and doesn’t expect to win. But, she added, “what else can I do? This is a farce to me.”

If the driver’s face is not clearly visible or if the vehicle has no license plate, no citation is issued.

However, many of those who are challenging the citations and have not seen their photos, like Charlene Gagnier of Sierra Madre, are hoping that windshield glare or shade will obscure their faces enough to make identification difficult.

But Gagnier conceded that she isn’t optimistic.

“My final strategy is to look for sympathy,” she said.

None of them may stand much of a chance of winning in court if the experiences of Paradise Valley, Ariz., motorists are any indicator.

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The Paradise Valley Police Department has issued 7,314 photo radar citations.

About 300 drivers have challenged their tickets in court, said Town Atty. Charles G. Ollinger.

Ollinger said about 75 cases were dismissed because the registered owner of the car, who received the ticket, was not the person in the photo.

But of the rest, the city has not lost a case, he said.

Ollinger said the city’s success in defending the machine has had a dramatic effect on the number of people seeking to challenge it in court.

In the first month, more than 100 people decided to fight their tickets.

Since then, the number has nose-dived to just a handful of cases a week.

“I actually expected a lot more hullabaloo,” Ollinger said. “Frankly, it’s been easy.”

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