Court tosses red light lawsuit, as House considers camera ban

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Red Traffic Light

The Texas Supreme Court has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of red light camera systems just days before the Texas House is scheduled to consider a bill banning the cameras.

In an opinion issued Friday, the court ruled that Luis Garcia and others who joined in a class action lawsuit lack the standing to bring the suit becausehe has fully resolved his citation by paying the civil penalty and faces no future injury from the law he challenges.”

The court on Nov. 1 heard oral arguments in the case brought by Irving attorney Russell Bowman on behalf of Garcia and others who had been issued $75 tickets based on photographs taken by red light cameras in Willis, in East Texas.

The suit contends Willis’ red light camera ordinance and the state’s red light camera laws are unconstitutional, that the local ordinance and state laws are in conflict, and that Willis exceeded its legal authority in issuing the tickets.

The state’s Ninth Court of Appeals in August 2017 had ruled against Garcia because, the judges said, he failed to exhaust all administrative remedies before bringing suit.

The Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court about Garcia’s legal obligations, but said the high court was responsible for determining Garcia’s standing and not whether he had fulfilled his administrative obligations. Garcia did not contend he paid his ticket under duress, the court said.

“Garcia may earnestly believe that red-light cameras are both unconstitutional and bad public policy,” the court wrote. “But, having paid his fine without arguing he will potentially break the law in the future, he has no particularized interest in the issue distinguishable from a member of the public at large.”

Bowman, whose fight against his own red light camera ticket in 2012 led to a crusade against the camera systems and the tickets they produce, did not respond to a call for comment.

Bowman told other red light camera activists that he is not giving up the court fight, although he wasn’t specific about his next step.

His fight may be over anyway, if the Texas Legislature decides to make red light camera systems illegal statewide. The House was expected to consider House Bill 1631 by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, on Monday, but had not addressed it by 5 p.m.

Red light camera opponents were encouraged this year when, after having failed in the past two sessions to get anywhere with his proposal,, Stickland convinced more than 100 House members — Republicans and some Democrats — to sign on to his bill.

The momentum slowed when camera opponents withdrew their support for Senate Bill 653, the other chamber’s version of the Stickland bill, because its author, Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, agreed to add language that would have allowed cities with long-term contracts with red light camera companies to complete their contracts, as the Texas Monitor reported.

Hall later reconsidered and removed the grandfather clause from his bill.

Stickland insisted he would not allow any grandfathering language in his bill. On April 17 the House Transportation Committee voted 9-4 to send the bill to the House. “Adios red light cameras, your time is up!” Stickland said in a text to a Dallas Morning News reporter.

Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and 30 other Texas cities operate red light camera systems, according to the most recent survey by the Texas Department of Transportation.

Those cities split an estimated $40 million a year in revenue generated by the $75 tickets, according to the Legislative Budget Board. Since 2007 red light camera systems have generated almost $700 million for Texas cities and the state, according to the Texas comptroller.

The systems, however, are unpopular with the public, in part because tickets are issued based on photographs of the license plates of cars, rather than of drivers. Bowman argued successfully in court that he been ticketed for an infraction when someone else was driving his car.

Over the past several years voters in Houston, Arlington, Corpus Christi, Richardson and Round Rock ended their red light camera programs.

Cities like Fort Worth have learned that drivers often simply refuse to pay the tickets. More than half of all the red light camera tickets — about 115,000 of them with a valued at $8.6 million — were not paid last year in Fort Worth.

And while the Texas Supreme Court did not address the constitutionality of red light cameras, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to a 2018 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that said the presumption of guilt implied in red light camera tickets is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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