Steve Tom played a judge on the television show "Major Crimes." But the actor felt he was on the wrong end of a verdict when he got a $490 ticket for blowing through a red light in Culver City.
The ticket had his name, all right. But the address on it was in St. Louis — far from Tom's North Hollywood home.
And the registered owner of the white Land Rover Discovery that allegedly ran the red was someone named Barry L. Babcock. Attached to the ticket was a photo still from the red light camera video. Tom said Babcock and he looked an awful lot alike.
"The driver is my doppelganger," he said. "But it wasn't me. I drive a 2002 Prius."
So began Tom's saga to prove it was his apparent double from St. Louis — and not him — behind the wheel of a vanity-plated SUV on June 15 at 2:44 p.m. According to the video, that's when the vehicle made a right turn on a red at Sepulveda Boulevard and Green Valley Drive.
Tom, 62, started scouring the Internet for information about Babcock. He quickly found images of the former cable television executive. Tom said he was taken aback by their shared resemblance. He hired a private investigator and found addresses in Florida and Missouri. The violation was a traffic infraction, but Tom said he wasn't going to pay for something he insisted he didn't do.
The day after he got the ticket he talked to a courthouse clerk in Santa Monica, who gave him an extension to Sept. 22. Talk to the Culver City police, he said. Tom said a sergeant listened but ultimately told him his partner approved the ticket and she would call him.
Then he got a call from another Culver City police officer he knows from a group meeting, said Tom, who has appeared on the television shows "Parks and Recreation" and "Funny or Die Presents."
"The guy insisted to me the department got the right guy and it was me. The city was going to win. He said, when I saw the photograph I knew it was you. You can bring as many attorneys, but it is you," he said.
Culver City Police Capt. Ron Iizuka told The Times that the department believes the right person got the red light ticket.
"We didn't use facial recognition. We don't have that kind of thing," Iizuka said.
But Iizuka said the video connected to the citation was carefully reviewed before an officer decided to issue it. Iizuka said one of the officers identified Tom as the man in the video.
"He knew him previously," Iizuka said.
Iizuka said he is aware that Tom on his Facebook page has been complaining about the ticket and denying it is him behind the wheel. But when Tom went to the station and spoke to one of the traffic sergeants, he acknowledged knowing the registered owner of the car, the captain said.
"He can go to court," Iizuka said. "It is high-quality video. …We are sure it's him."
But an angry Tom said he never told the police sergeant that he knew Babcock personally, only that he knew of him because he had looked him up after he got the ticket. Tom said he spoke with Babcock over the phone Wednesday.
"I never met him in my life," he said, adding that the officer he knew from the meetings is the same one who identified him as the driver of the red-light-violating car.
Reached by his cell phone, Babcock said it "is correct" that he does not know Tom.
"It's weird," he said of the ticket. Babcock, however, would not comment at length about the red light violation or ticket. His advice to Tom is to "get an attorney to fight it."
Red-light cameras have been a financial boon for Culver City since 1999. They operate at 11 intersections across the city, according to city records. In 2014, the cameras generated more than $2 million in revenue with about 40% going to a company that operates the system, according to those city records.
Jay Beeber of Safety Streets LA, a group that successfully campaigned to eliminate L.A.'s red-light cameras in 2012, said the ticket Tom got raised questions.
"That is the craziest red-light-cam ticket I have ever heard and I have been doing this a while," Beeber said. "They have to have a reasonable suspicion…. What other evidence do they have?"
Sherman Ellison, an attorney who specializes in traffic tickets, said a police department only needs to meet a probable-cause standard, while a judge must decide the evidence is beyond a reasonable doubt.
"He is going to have to go to court," he said. "It is very common for a judge to dismiss on identification."
Nationwide, more than 700 cities once used red-light cameras. But that number has declined to about 400 as questions over whether they improve safety have arisen, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. California once had more than 100 cities with cameras. The number that use them now in the state stands at about a third of that, according to Beeber, who tracks their numbers.
Tom said he has hired a lawyer to deal with the citation. He plans to use still images from a video of Babcock speaking at Webster University as evidence in his defense.
"He looks just like me there," Tom said.
Tom said he's been looking for other evidence. He said he was in Santa Monica for a doctor's visit from the late morning to the early afternoon and then wrote a commission check to his agent in her office at the exact time of the citation.
If the crime dramas he has appeared on have any grain of truth, he knows fighting an airtight alibi can be as hard as finding a guy who looks just like you.