The state supreme court and the governor are closing in on red light camera systems in dozens of cities across Texas.
On Nov. 1, five days before the general election, the Texas Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of residents of Willis, a Montgomery County town just north of Conroe, challenging the legality of red light camera tickets they received.
Russell Bowman, the Irving attorney handling the case, has so far argued successfully that Willis is one of dozens of Texas cities that broke state law by installing red light systems without first doing an engineering study to determine if the systems prevent accidents.
“The cities know they don’t have a leg to stand on, so they’re arguing the [red light camera] statute can’t be challenged in court,” Bowman told The Texas Monitor on Tuesday. “That’s what the courts are for.”
At the same time, Gov. Greg Abbott has made banning red light cameras one of his four major action items for the upcoming legislative session in a report, Safeguarding, Securing, Serving, he issued this week.
Abbott’s report is harshly critical of systems that have generated $641 million in ticket revenue for cities since 2007, according to the Texas Comptroller’s Office.
Cities have not done the studies required by law, Abbott said. Recent studies have shown the systems do not prevent, and in some cases increase, the incident of accidents, he said.
In addition to other problems, the governor said, “There are constitutional issues with red light cameras as well: red light cameras often capture a clear image of the license plate and not the driver, rendering accused violators guilty until proven innocent.”
Encouraged by Abbott’s putting the issue front and center, state Sen. Don Huffines said he will once again file legislation in the upcoming session for a statewide ban on red light cameras.
Huffines, R-Dallas, told The Texas Monitor on Tuesday that he thinks a change in House leadership, beginning with the decision last fall by Speaker Joe Straus to step down, will increase the odds of success for his bill. Similar bills in the past two sessions stalled in the House Transportation Committee.
“The governor’s weight behind this is very, very important,” Huffines said. “We’ve got to get rid of these red light cameras. This is a bipartisan issue. Everyone, on the right and the left, hates these cameras. It’s never been about safety, it’s been about generating revenue.”
Revenue — including the more than $16 million a year state’s share generated by red light cameras, according to one Legislative Budget Board estimate — will likely be at the center of the debate.
Huffines acknowledged that in a tight budget session in 2017, the $32 million biennial fiscal hit predicted by the budget board scared off some legislators who would have otherwise voted for a ban.
Since the legislature passed the original bill sanctioning red light camera use in 2007, the state’s cut of that money has been a reliable and substantial plug for holes in a state budget that must, by the state constitution, be balanced.
Which is why legislatures have for years been allowed to ignore the original requirement that was supposed to have poured tens of millions of dollars of ticket revenue into the state’s medical trauma and emergency centers.
Byron Schirmbeck, who first led a Trash Your Ticket camera revolt in Baytown in 2011, said Abbott’s early salvo will have an impact only if he can convince legislators to wean themselves off of that revenue.
Schirmbeck, Texas coordinator for the national conservative group Campaign for Liberty, helped identify resistance in the 2015 session to the bill as coming from Joe Pickett, the House Transportation Committee chairman at the time.
Nearing the end of the 2017 session, Jack Matthews, client services manager for Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., one of the state’s major red light camera vendors, pressured the city of Austin to extend its contract as a buffer against potential legislation.
In a letter obtained in a Texas Public Information Act request, Matthews told Elaine Hart, assistant city manager at the time, and Police Chief Brian Manley, then the assistant chief, that “During the 2015 Texas legislative session there were numerous banning bills introduced and the efforts to keep those from passing were enormous and ultimately successful in part because of Representative Joe Pickett.”
Straus replaced Pickett, D-El Paso, in the 2017 session with Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria. While the letter does not mention Morrison by name, Matthews told the Austin officials he was “deeply concerned” about the efforts to pass a blanket ban.
“I appreciate and understand the pressure this places upon you and know this is not how Redflex ordinarily conducts our business,” Matthews wrote. “Our objective is to provide you with the information to make a prudent decision.”
The red light camera bill never made it out of Morrison’s committee.
The Texas Monitor contacted Macgregor Stephenson, Morrison’s chief of staff, asking to discuss with her whether she would support Abbott’s call for a ban. Neither Stephenson nor Morrison responded with comment.
Schirmbeck said red light cameras have been a popular campaign issue for several years because they are so unpopular with the public. Over the past several years, voters in Arlington, Baytown, College Station, Conroe, Dayton, Houston, Hutto and League City by wide margins have approved ending their contracts with camera vendors.
This is, however, the strongest statement yet from Abbott against them. His report leans heavily on the most comprehensive study to date of the effectiveness of red light cameras in protecting public safety, done by economists for Case Western Reserve University and the University of Arizona.
The study, which focused on Houston, Dallas and San Antonio during the period after passage of the red light camera bill, found no reduction in accidents, no reduction in the number of people hurt in those accidents and no decrease in the seriousness of the injuries in those accidents.
Echoing reporting done by Texas Watchdog, Abbott’s report says Austin and other cities are facing a clerical nightmare because car owners are ignoring millions of dollars worth of tickets, and cities have no effective mechanism to collect that money.
Like Bowman, who spent three years fighting his own red light ticket, many people have complained they weren’t driving when cameras captured alleged violations involving their vehicles.
“It is unclear under the law whether the officer who reviews the camera footage constitutes a witness against the accused,” Abbott’s report says. “The law is still unsettled on what is required to satisfy the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment in these cases.”
A district judge in Richardson in 2016 ruled in favor of Bowman and awarded him more than $27,000 in attorney’s fees.
Bowman’s Supreme Court case hinges on the alleged illegitimacy of the contracts with vendors.
After the city of Austin could not provide Schirmbeck with evidence that an engineering study had been done prior to the installation of its camera system, KXAN-TV in Austin found in a survey of 50 Texas cities that only three had complied with the law and completed a study.
“Here’s the thing that pisses me off,” Bowman said. “Cities just expect people to follow the law and pay these tickets, when none of them followed the law when they put the cameras in.”
Bowman said he is confident the Supreme Court will side with his clients, opening the door for challenges to other cities. Schirmbeck is cautiously optimistic there is a legislative remedy.
“When you have the governor speaking about it, when voters, every time they’ve been asked, have gotten rid of them, when the district courts have ruled against them, there are no more excuses,” he said. “If it doesn’t happen, we’ll know the politicians are just talking in the wind.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].