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As red light camera fight heads to Texas Supreme Court, many cities may be operating them illegally

Image source: KTVT screen capture

As civil libertarians are anxiously watching the progress of a lawsuit over red light cameras that is heading to the Texas Supreme Court next week, a local CBS affiliate in Dallas has discovered that many of the cameras throughout the state may be operating illegally even if the overall program is found to be legal.

What's the story?

When the Texas Legislature approved the measure that allowed the installation of red light cameras, it added a provision to the bill that was theoretically supposed to ensure that red light cameras, when used, would be used to promote safety and not merely to raise revenue for Texas municipalities.

According to the bill, "Before installing a photographic traffic signal enforcement system at an intersection approach, the local authority shall conduct a traffic engineering study of the approach to determine whether, in addition to or as an alternative to the system, a design change to the approach or a change in the signalization of the intersection is likely to reduce the number of red light violations at the intersection." The law further specifies that the study must be performed by an outside professional engineering firm, and not by the city's own engineers.

However, an investigation conducted by KTVT-TV in Dallas found that many North Texas cities are operating red light cameras at intersections where no engineering study has been done, in apparent violation of the law. When KTVT asked 25 North Texas municipalities to provide them with copies of engineering studies required by the law, only one city was able to provide a compliant report.

Ten cities provided KTVT with studies that were not performed by outside engineering firms as required by law. Two cities offered no response at all.

An additional 12 cities claimed that since they began installation of their red light cameras before the law went into effect, their cameras are "grandfathered" in under the law, a contention which the bill's author disputes.

State Rep. Jim Murphy, who authored the bill, told KTVT, "Our intention was not to grandfather cameras in at all. That’s not what it says and I would challenge them (cities) to have that conversation. That’s not what we intended at all."

What about the lawsuits?

The lawsuits are the brain child of North Texas lawyer Russell Bowman, who was incensed when he received a ticket in the mail from the city of Richardson several years ago for $75. Bowman wrote the city a letter explaining that he was not driving the car that ran the red light on the day in question, but the city dismissed his appeal and ordered him to pay the ticket. Bowman was incensed and decided to take his fight to court.

According to the Texas Monitor, Bowman has been fighting the red light camera program in Texas for years, filing numerous class action suits on behalf of Texas drivers who have received tickets from various Texas cities that have not performed the studies required by the law. Bowman has won a number of decisions (and also lost several), and has ultimately been successful in getting at least one Texas city to end its red light program entirely.

One of his cases, against the city of Willis (about 50 miles north of Houston), is heading to the Texas Supreme Court next week.

His crusade has also attracted the attention of some Texas legislators, including state Sen. Don Huffines (R), who has introduced bills to outlaw the cameras in the last two legislative sessions, and is now also fighting for legislation that will require cities that have operated cameras without engineering studies to refund some or all of the estimated $537 million they have collected from Texas drivers since the law was passed in 2007.



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