Arizona speed cameras incite a mini revolt

Arizonans drive long distances on their highways, and they like to do it fast.

But since the Grand Canyon State began enforcing speed limits with roadside cameras, motorists are raging against the machines: They have blocked out the lenses with Post-it notes or Silly String. During the Christmas holidays, they covered the cameras with boxes, complete with wrapping paper.

One dissenting citizen went after a camera with a pick ax.

Arizona is the only state to implement “photo enforcement,” as it’s known, on major highways and is one of 12 states and 52 communities, plus the District of Columbia, with speed cameras, according to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The cameras, paired with radar devices, photograph vehicles exceeding the speed limit by 11 mph or more. A notice of violation -- carrying a fine of $181.50 -- is then sent to the address of the vehicle’s registered owner.

In California, speed cameras are illegal, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a program to add speed enforcement capabilities to 500 red-light cameras to generate $338 million for the 2010-11 budget. The proposal is unlikely to be a part of the Legislature’s upcoming budget recommendations.

State Assembly Budget Committee Chairwoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) has described the proposal as “silly.”

“It’s using big-brother tactics to balance the state budget,” she said. “It’s outlandish.”

That’s certainly been the reaction in Arizona, where the cameras have incited a mini revolt.

Initially, the cameras were thought of as a revenue generator, expected to bring in more than $90 million in the first fiscal year of operation.

But from October 2008, when the program began, to October 2009, the cameras generated about $19 million for the state’s cash-strapped general fund, according to a report on photo radar released by the Arizona Office of the Auditor General last month.

As of September, only 38% of issued violations were paid, the report said.

This doesn’t mean the program lacks defenders. The number of fatal collisions investigated on state highways in 2009 was the lowest in 15 years, a figure that Lt. Jeff King of the Arizona Department of Public Safety attributes to tough drunk driving laws and photo enforcement.

“We believe the cameras should stay up,” said King, who is the district commander for the program.

The program was designed to encourage people to pay the fine and not fight their violations: No points are added to an offender’s license, and it doesn’t affect insurance.

But, critics note, that hasn’t stopped people from wanting their day in court. About half of the total violations issued are still pending because people have ignored the tickets or have requested hearings to challenge them, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

The violations put an “inordinate” load on the courts, said Terry Stewart, a court administrator with Maricopa County. People have flocked to request hearings at Phoenix courts, and at one point last year, one court branch had cases set up through 2011.

“You just have irate litigants and irate defendants coming in, just mad at the entire photo enforcement system in general,” said Steven Sarkis, a Maricopa County justice of the peace.

The most high-profile protester has been Dave VonTesmar, who has achieved statewide fame through his efforts to fight the tickets with a monkey mask. The 47-year-old flight attendant has allegedly sped past the cameras at least 40 times.

His defense?

There’s no way to prove that he was the driver wearing the mask, he says. Lots of people, he adds, drive his car.

VonTesmar, who signed up for the military on his 17th birthday, says he doesn’t fancy himself a criminal.

Amid empty soda cans on the floor of his white station wagon are various rubber disguises, including the famous monkey mask, a Frankenstein, koala, panda bear and a ghost mask that glows in the dark.

So far, four of VonTesmar’s cases have been dismissed, and he’s been found responsible for seven. The remaining 29 are pending, said VonTesmar’s attorney, Michael Kielsky.

In December, the Maricopa County courts launched a pilot program specially designed to handle the photo enforcement hearing caseload. On one particular day, about 30 people sat in various courtrooms to fight their tickets.

Anh Pearson of Cave Creek, Ariz., came prepared with a manila folder. “How do you know that is my car?” she asked the judge. “Do you know if I’m the registered driver?”

With each question, Judge Don Calender’s irritation became more apparent in his monotone voice.

“Were you driving, yes or no?” he replied. “Were you speeding, yes or no? It’s pretty simple.”

In the end, she paid the fine. Pearson, 58, said she basically lives on the freeways in her work. Her job? A freelance court interpreter.

Among the dissenters fighting photo enforcement are members of a citizens group, the Arizona Citizens Against Photo Radar.

In Maricopa County -- where 92% of Arizona’s violations occur -- volunteers have been on the streets for about a year, gathering signatures for a 2010 ballot initiative to remove the cameras. On a December afternoon, Shawn Dow, chairman of the group, and two volunteers gathered signatures at an Arizona State University basketball game.

As ASU fans in maroon and yellow shuffled into the game, a mother with children in a Toyota Prius gave an opposing view as she drove past.

“Photo radar keeps people alive with kids, whoo-hoo!” she yelled.

Many people, however, were eager to sign the petition. One couple even took a snapshot with a sign saying “BAN Photo Radar!”

“It’s a fraud,” said Jose Jimenez of West Phoenix, who posed with his girlfriend. “It’s a big scam.”

The Arizona Legislature is considering multiple bills to alter or end the photo enforcement system. Gov. Jan Brewer is encouraging the Legislature to place a referendum on the November ballot -- so voters can decide whether to scrap the system.

Another dissenter is John Keegan, a judge for the Arrowhead Justice Court, who has called the cameras a constitutional violation. He rejects every photo radar ticket that comes before him.

So far, Keegan says, he’s dismissed more than 7,000 violations, potentially worth more than $1 million.