Bob Brickman spent months fighting a ticket he got last fall from a red-light traffic camera at Wilshire and Sepulveda boulevards in West Los Angeles.
The 61-year-old from Playa Vista eventually decided to give up the fight and fork over the $476 fine. Now he's regretting paying every penny.
City officials this week spotlighted a surprising revelation involving red-light camera tickets: Authorities cannot force violators who simply don't respond to pay them. For a variety of reasons, including the way the law was written, Los Angeles officials say the fines for ticketed motorists are essentially "voluntary" and there are virtually no tangible consequences for those who refuse to pay.
The disclosure comes as the city is considering whether to drop the controversial photo enforcement program, with the City Council scheduled to vote on the matter Wednesday. Even if the program is shut down, it will be little consolation to the tens of thousands like Brickman who already paid fines.
"Now that makes me nuts," said Brickman, who is unemployed. "That makes me want to go get a refund, but I've been around long enough to know that's not going to happen. It's very frustrating to know that I was victimized by something that they think is not useful or a good idea.… I could truly use that $476."
Councilman Paul Koretz said motorists like Brickman should not expect refunds. But he said the city's inability to collect on the red-light camera tickets underscores the need to kill the program.
"There are many, many reasons to get rid of the red-light cameras, but one of the most compelling is the way the court system handles the tickets," Koretz said.
More than 180,000 motorists have been issued red-light camera tickets since the program, which has equipment monitoring approaches to 32 intersections, began in 2004 in Los Angeles.
Unlike other moving citations, which are issued directly by a police officer to a driver who signs a promise to appear in court, red-light camera tickets are mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle allegedly involved in the violation.
That has limited the Los Angeles County Superior Court system's willingness to aggressively enforce camera ticket collections for the city and 32 other photo enforcement programs in Los Angeles County, officials said.
Under state law, court officials have discretion over how they pursue those who do not respond to camera-generated citations. Los Angeles County Superior Court officials, as a matter of fairness, said that for the last decade they have chosen a less forceful approach partly because the person receiving the ticket may not be the person who was driving the car.
In particular, the Superior Court has decided not to notify the state Department of Motor Vehicles of any "pre-conviction" unpaid camera tickets, which could lead to holds on driver's licenses and registration renewals.
The court may seek payments via collection agencies, but failures to pay do not show up on personal credit reports, court officials said. The policy applies to tickets received throughout Los Angeles County, said Greg Blair, the court's senior administrator for traffic operations.
There is a key exception: a recipient of a camera ticket who goes to court and is ordered to pay a fine will be pursued for non-payment like any other moving violation offender. In those cases, drivers could face stiff penalties and suspended licenses, among other things, Blair said.
Some motorists reported facing harsh penalties from courts or the DMV even if they did not respond. But Blair said that is not consistent with the court's procedures and another legal issue is probably involved. Other motorists said their insurance companies threatened to raise premiums if red-light camera tickets weren't paid, despite the court's policy.
Court officials estimate that about 60% of those who get the tickets pay them. Blair said about 256,000 red-light camera tickets were issued in the county last year, and that roughly 25% of those who do not initially pay and are referred to the court's collection agency end up handing over the cash.
Another potential problem for motorists who do not respond to tickets is that if an employer or someone else chooses to run a court background search, the unpaid tickets will show up as delinquent.
But for those who ignore them and do not show up in court or admit guilt, neither the city nor the court system will force them to pay. Additionally, Cmdr. Blake Chow of the Los Angeles Police Department said those scofflaws face no risk to their credit rating, car registrations or driver's licenses.
Legal questions about how intensely the city can enforce red-light camera tickets have been circulating at City Hall for months, and some officials have been publicly decrying the problem for some time. But many motorists were shocked this week to read reports that the Los Angeles Police Commission and elected officials consider payment of the hefty fines and fees to be "voluntary."
Morgan Harvey, who was hit with a ticket in May for making an illegal right turn at Pico Boulevard and Bundy Drive, said she had been putting off paying the fine, but now plans not to.
"If it's not going to affect my credit or if I don't have to go to court or have a boot on my car, then I won't," said Harvey, who works in marketing.
Some motorists are angry the Los Angeles city program could be axed after they paid up.
"I'm pissed off," said Abigail Stone, a Los Angeles writer who paid a ticket three months ago. "I really could have used the money for a lot of other things. And it's like, if they're going to phase it out, why couldn't they have figured it out?.… It's just really annoying."
The city Police Commission, in part citing the difficulty collecting fines, voted last month to shut down the program. The issue has been debated in City Council meetings and committee hearings several times since.
After a three-hour hearing Monday, one committee voted unanimously to recommend the program be phased out. A second committee made roughly the same recommendation Tuesday afternoon.
The possibility of ending the program in the nation's second-largest city has thrust Los Angeles into the forefront of the debate over the effectiveness of the red-light cameras. Some experts and LAPD officials have said the cameras have reduced collisions, but other studies found that the cameras increase rear-end collisions.
A Times investigation also found that most of Los Angeles' red-light camera tickets were for rolling right turns, which some experts consider less dangerous violations.
Some cities, such as Anaheim, passed ballot measures banning red-light camera programs. In El Monte, which ended its program in 2008, a study found no difference in the accident rate at intersections with and without cameras.
But a number of other cities in Los Angeles County that have the programs in place said, despite the lack of teeth in court enforcement, they are pleased with their programs and haven't had problems collecting on red-light tickets.
In Santa Clarita, a program launched in 2004 generates net revenues of $600,000 to $700,000 a year from cameras at seven intersections, said city spokeswoman Gail Ortiz.
At camera-equipped intersections, broadside collisions have decreased 64% and red-light violations have dropped 71%, she said.
"If anything, we would contemplate adding new [cameras], but at this point, we're going to leave it as it is," Ortiz said.
And other counties, such as San Diego and Ventura, do enforce a policy of notifying the DMV when people fail to appear or pay citations.
Although refunds may not yet be available to those like Brickman who paid their tickets, Sherman Ellison, an attorney who has dealt with "hundreds" of such traffic cases, said some class-action lawyers are watching the Los Angeles County situation closely and determining whether there would be grounds for a lawsuit to recover red-light camera penalties.