The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants people who are accused of crimes the right to confront witnesses against them. In a 2004 case, Crawford v. Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the importance of this right.
How, then, do speed cameras at intersections that automatically dispense tickets fit with the constitutional right to confront witnesses?
The issue has important implications for people accused of any type of crime. From drunk driving to drug offenses and beyond, it's important to maintain basic procedural requirements of probable cause and the right to confront witnesses.
Speed Cameras at Intersections
Local governments are installing many red light cameras all around the country, and the Bay Area is no exception. The stated goal is to catch drivers who run through red lights. When a driver does this, the devices capture the car, via photograph or video, which allows law enforcement to identify the drivers and send them tickets. In California, fines can run as high as almost $500 per infraction.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers who run red lights are a serious safety problem. The Institute reports that in 2009 alone, red light runners were responsible for over 600 fatalities and about 130,000 more injuries.
Some law enforcement officials around the Bay Area believe that speed cameras are making a difference in terms of safety. For example, police in Fremont say that there has been a 40 percent reduction in accidents that occur at the intersections where the cameras have been installed.
Many critics contend, however, that speed cameras are a form of state-sanctioned highway robbery and do not make California's roads any safer. Critics point to the amount of money that the state and local governments rake in from the automatically generated fines. According the California Department of Finance, the state brings in $80 million dollars each year from red light cameras, and the cities and counties that use them make $50 million annually.
"We ought to look at the driving public as people we're trying to keep safe, not as ATM machines for local or state government," State Senator Joe Simitian told NBC Bay Area.
In order to ensure that the devices are not being used solely as a revenue source, Simitian proposed legislation that would cap the amount of money that red light runners can be charged when ticketed. The measure, however, was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown.
In addition to the money that drivers are charged for the tickets generated by the red light cameras, Simitian is concerned about the legal questions that arise because of their use.
"There are accuracy issues, privacy issues and due process issues with these tickets," Simitian said. "The trouble is that more and more cities depend on this for revenue."
The due process issues relate to the confrontation clause, and so are of constitutional importance.
Red Light Cameras in Court
Californians who have been fined because of evidence collected by a red light camera may have an easier time fighting the ticket thanks to a recent decision by the Superior Court of California. The court found that the evidence collected by the devices is inadmissible because the evidence is hearsay and raises confrontation clause problems.
In its decision, the court stated that "The photographs contain hearsay evidence concerning the matters depicted in the photographs including the date, time, and other information. The person who entered that relevant information into the camera-computer system did not testify. The person who entered that information was not subject to being cross-examined on the underlying source of that information. The person or persons who maintain the system did not testify. No one with personal knowledge testified about how often the system is maintained."
Appellate courts will need to determine whether a business records exception to the hearsay rule under the California Evidence Code is a valid response to these concerns.
If you have been given a ticket because of a red light camera, consult a qualified criminal defense attorney who can advise you of your rights and help you fight in court.