The Red Light Camera Saga In Houston Continues: Court Lets New Parties Enter The Case

from the convoluted... dept

We've been following the somewhat bizarre legal situation in Houston, involving a legal fight over the red light cameras in that city. The details have been somewhat confusing, but the short summary is that there was a public referendum that voted against the red light cameras, which created a legal mess. That's because when the cameras had been installed, the city signed a long-term contract with the company supplying them, ATS. ATS then sued the city, and confusion ensued. Some of the details were a bit hazy, but a new ruling lays it out pretty clearly.

Basically, the city (which profits handsomely off of red light cameras) wanted to keep the cameras, and thus was upset about the referendum. So when ATS sued the city over its attempt to follow the referendum and cancel the contract, the city had every incentive to basically throw the case and let ATS "win," since that meant the city itself would win in terms of revenue. That's why the citizens who had put the referendum to ban red light cameras on the ballot decided to try to get listed as parties to the lawsuit as well -- to make sure that the public's rights were defended. The lower court refused to let them get involved, but the 5th Circuit appeals court disagreed -- noting that it's in the public's interest that these people are allowed to take part in the case.

What's interesting is how the court justifies allowing these people to enter the case, noting that they spent considerable money on the campaign to get the referendum in the first place:
These intervenors are unique because they engineered the drive that led to a city charter amendment over the nearly unanimous, well funded, and longstanding opposition of the Mayor and City Council. They have demonstrated a particular interest in cementing their electoral victory and defending the charter amendment itself. If the amendment is overturned, their money and time will have been spent in vain. Finally, they have raised substantial doubts about the City's motives and conduct in its defense of the litigation with ATS. Without these intervenors' participation, the City might well be inclined to settle the litigation on terms that preserve the adverse ruling on the charter amendment and thus preserve its flexibility to reinstate red light cameras in the future. This is no matter of simply defending City policy of one sort or another: it involves millions of dollars of revenue to City coffers during a period of considerable economic uncertainty.


Reader Comments (rss)

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    MrWilson, Jan 31st, 2012 @ 8:26pm

    God forbid any members of hoi polloi get a voice in the greedy machinations of governments and corporations.

     

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    Josh (profile), Jan 31st, 2012 @ 8:29pm

    It would still be pretty lucrative...

    At first I thought they were talking about a different sort of red light, and I wondered how that was legal to begin with, with or without cameras.

     

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      DOlz (profile), Jan 31st, 2012 @ 10:17pm

      Re: It would still be pretty lucrative...

      It's legal with a camera, because then it's a movie. If it's done privately and paid for it's a crime. I believe the court case was Voyeur v. Discretion.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 5:52am

        Re: Re: It would still be pretty lucrative...

        I'm constantly amazed that "those types of movies" are legal in the US but prostitution is not. HOW DOES THIS MAKE ANY SENSE?

         

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 31st, 2012 @ 8:35pm

    Shambles

    I don't think you need to pay those tickets! If only people realized this. But then again, we do pay a tax on our labor as well, when we should not... silly people, always doing what we are told in herds

    OT: What is the big deal with everyone concerned about unemployment. Shouldn't that be the goal? What the fuck are you working for if you don't need to? Less people working = less worthless production = happy people and planet. With all of our supposed advancement, why can't we figure out the optimal amount of work that needs to be done to support the world but not exploit it. I think therein lies the anwer to sustainability.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 31st, 2012 @ 8:57pm

    Predicting the out of court settlement.

    Cameras remain. Contract upheld. Fines issued, but with a $0.00 fine amount. The city pays a rental for the cameras and the cost of their maintenance that is abnormally high, keeping the provider happy. Houston finds another way to rob their own citizens.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 31st, 2012 @ 9:04pm

    So does this provide actual hard legal precedent for something we've known for decades: that governments don't actually represent the public?

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 31st, 2012 @ 9:21pm

      Re:

      In this case the Judges are siding with the public, but making references to how much the public spent on it to get it done, so it appears you need to spend money to buy justice this days.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Jan 31st, 2012 @ 11:16pm

        Re: Re:

        In Texas, money for justice has always been the way. Judges are popularly elected. Which means they blow which way the money blows.

        There is a reason judges are appointed for life, most other places.

        But then, you only have to study texas history to understand their unique interpretation of justice. It explains a lot about the governors they keep throwing to the national stage.

         

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          btr1701 (profile), Feb 1st, 2012 @ 11:51am

          Re: Re: Re:

          > It explains a lot about the governors they
          > keep throwing to the national stage.

          At least they keep throwing them to the national stage, instead of into prison, like they do in Illinois.

           

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    Aging Liberal Hippie Douche, Jan 31st, 2012 @ 9:04pm

    This is another example of why Citizen's United is bad. This ruling is basically saying that money is connected to speech! There should be some sort of constitutional amendment so that rich jerks don't have the right to influence government.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 31st, 2012 @ 10:55pm

      Re:

      I would buy into that!

       

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      John Thacker, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 5:36am

      Re:

      No, this is another example of why Citizens United is good. If not for Citizens United, the rich jerks would have even more power. Citizens United allows people like the petitioners here to come together temporarily to pool their money and challenge the cameras. It makes it easier for individual groups on an ad hoc basis to challenge policies, instead of leaving things up to the politicians and the established pressure groups that know their way around all the regulations.

      Corporations (which include non-profits and unions) are how ordinary people can pool their money to influence the government. Individual rich jerks can perfectly well influence the government without corporations, and always have. The right of individual rich jerks to speak their mind under the First Amendment is acknowledged protected by all. (Citizens United wasn't about contributions, just about speaking; in particular, a non-profit trying to put out a documentary it made about a candidate it didn't like.)

      If not for Citizens United, then the stands of corporations like Google, Reddit, the Wikimedia Foundation, and others against SOPA and PIPA could be taken as electioneering and banned.

      Of course, the pro-SOPA/PIPA stands of CNN, Rupert Murdoch, Time, and Hollywood would all be protected even without Citizens United, since even Citizens United opponents want a special exemption for media corporations.

       

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      John Thacker, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 5:41am

      Re:

      So, your position is that one really rich person should be able to fund a documentary or put out ads about a candidate or pending law that they dislike, and existing media corporations like Hollywood studios, CNN, or Fox News should be able to do the same, but if ordinary people not currently involved in politics want to form a non-profit and put out an independent documentary or newsletter that does the same, they should be banned from doing so? (Unless you think that the government can censor newspapers and TV too, so long as corporations like The New York Times Company or News Corp publish them.)

      Strange. Do you also think that free speech rights don't apply to video games, and should be able to be arbitrarily banned, since they're published by corporations?

       

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      Stuart, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 7:07am

      Re:

      All jerks have the right to influence government.
      I guess we could set up the system so that only the rich can afford to run.

       

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    Steve, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 5:48am

    What the hell is wrong with car drivers

    Has everyone gone mad or is just that the majority of voters are car drivers and we always have to defer to their screwed up ideas of justice. It seems if we gave car drivers their own say in all matters of the road they'd expect to make running over pedestrians legal. Has everyone missed the point that traffic cameras are there for the purposes of safety and this whole "they're there to make local authorities money" is a red herring perpetuated by motoring groups.

    It's dead easy.
    SPEED CAMERAS: No speeding = no revenue!
    RED LIGHT CAMERAS: No running red lights = no revenue!

    But i suppose i'm just an idiot pedestrian who knows nothing about 'the realities of driving and the roads'
    These rubbish 'only for revenue' arguments really piss me off.
    I suppose we'll be running referenda to abolish the crime of murder and all sorts of other crimes next?!?!?!
    If i've missed a wider point, then, apologies.
    Rant over.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 6:00am

      Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

      Two things, "speeding" in a car is a relative concept. Is a particular street more or less safe if a driver is going 30 mph vs. 31 mph? Prove it. Endless studies have been done about speeding and the only real conclusion they can agree on is that traffic is complicated and that speed limits should be based on a variety of factors which are constantly changing: overall traffic, population density, weather, road condition, number of drives and intersecting streets.

      Second thing, red light cameras have been repeatedly shown to increase the number of accidents at intersections as people slam on the breaks: nuff said.

       

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        bradykp (profile), Feb 1st, 2012 @ 6:52am

        Re: Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

        people not knowing how to drive and slamming on the breaks isn't caused by red light cameras, it's caused by stupidity.

         

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          Chris, Feb 13th, 2012 @ 6:55am

          Re: Re: Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

          Actually its caused by a rewiring in motivation in their brains. See generally at a light, everyone minds safety rules. But when people see a red light camera they automatically switch into a mode of thinking with their wallet rather than with their brain which causes people to irrationally slam on their brakes to avoid a fine.

           

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        Steve, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 7:27am

        Re: Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

        You're full of shit mate.
        The reason people "slam on the brakes" at lights is because they're driving like cocks and not paying attention in the first place. We get the same bollocks argument trotted out for speed cameras in this country.
        Do you think people who argue for safety are idiots?
        If you're paying attention and driving properly in the first place there is no room for argument, or 'slamming on the brakes' because you've panicked at the sight of an enforcement camera or red light, it's not like they try to trick you. I'm sure people are very aware that a light may change as they approach it, that's if they were, again, actually paying attention: nuff said indeed.

         

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          Chosen Reject (profile), Feb 1st, 2012 @ 8:03am

          Re: Re: Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

          They do try to trick you. Plenty of jurisdictions that have installed red light cameras have also been caught shortening the yellow light. When the light turns yellow, you only have so much time to make the decision of whether you can safely stop or not, and when they lower that time, they make it so you have less time to stop so you don't run a red, which means you are more likely to hit the brakes.

          And whether you want to call it stupidity or not ignores the reality that when red light cameras go in more accidents occur. You can debate the oughts and shoulds all you want, but you can't refute reality: more accidents occur when red light cameras are installed.

          Plenty of studies have shown that the best way to increase safety is to increase the yellow light time and put in a delay between the red light and cross-traffic green lights. This costs the city a small amount but will never bring in revenue so most cities don't opt for it. Instead they choose the method that brings in revenue, but isn't the safest, AND gives them all sorts of incentives to actually decrease safety.

          If you're going to propose safety, propose solutions which 1) work and 2) don't give incentives for decreasing safety. Red light cameras do neither.

           

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            Anonymous Coward, Feb 2nd, 2012 @ 1:19pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

            Thank you Chosen Reject, my original point exactly. I'm not against safety, I'm against cities using cameras to make money while DECREASING safety.

            The yellow light "trick" has been so common in cities with red light cameras that there has been talk of federal legislation.

            Also, I love how the poster above gets all bitchy with me as though I'm responsible for the facts.

             

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      Adam V, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 6:32am

      Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

      Studies have shown that the best way to make intersections safer is to increase the yellow light time. However, studies also found a number of cases where the city in fact *decreased* these times to increase the number of people running the lights, which increased revenue.

      I'll go look for links to the studies.

       

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        Brian W, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 7:02am

        Re: Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

         

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          Steve, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 8:13am

          Re: Re: Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

          Hey, I have absolutely no problem with studying and correcting the adverse effects of traffic control systems. But the fact remains that most drivers, in my experience, need to be treated like brainless children as that is what they drive like. Most have absolutely no respect for the safety of others let alone themselves.
          And also, just because drivers have been getting away with breaking the rules because they are virtually unenforceable, until new technologies were able to take up the slack, doesn't mean they should not be enforced. Getting away with it is not the same as being allowed to do it.

           

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            Anonymous Coward, Feb 2nd, 2012 @ 1:26pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

            Dude, you really need to talk to a traffic engineer. When an engineer is determining an appropriate speed for a road, part of their calculation is the EXPECTATION that some people will speed. They often set the speed slightly lower than what is "safe" as that leaves wiggle room for speeders.

            Also, speeding can help to increase safety by reducing the density of traffic (up to a point). Basically traffic and transportation is a well understood science and I doubt many traffic engineers are out spouting the glories of red light and speed cameras as they are much more interested in safety and efficiency than revenue.

            Finally, you sound like someone who doesn't own a car. While there are plenty of bad drives the statement "most drivers, in my experience, need to be treated like brainless children" is a strong indicator that you are either arrogant or ignorant ... but you keep on keepin' on.

             

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      btr1701 (profile), Feb 1st, 2012 @ 11:57am

      Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

      > But i suppose i'm just an idiot pedestrian
      > who knows nothing about 'the realities of
      > driving and the roads'

      No, you're just an idiot pedestrian who knows nothing about the realities of how governments work.

      Whether you like it or not, it *is* all about the money. You need look no further than Dallas, Texas, for evidence of just that. They spent hundreds of thousands installing red light cameras, to great fanfare about how they would make the streets safer, then when the cameras actually worked and people stopped running the lights, the city noticed it was experiencing a serious revenue shortfall from the lack of tickets. What did they do? Yep, they removed all the red light cameras.

      I guess road safety wasn't all that important after all.

       

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      Anon, Feb 5th, 2012 @ 8:18am

      Re: What the hell is wrong with car drivers

      Of course, the flip side of this is that traffic ticket fee revenue is below expectations because insufficient people break the law, that can (and, historically has caused) cause politicians to change the law in order to increase the number of lawbreakers/fee-payers.

      If there are an insufficient number of speeding tickets, lower the speeding limit.

      When deciding whether a dangerous intersection with many fatal accidents should have a red-light camera, or a busy intersection, better to have it to an intersection with more traffic, to increase ticket counts. If a busy intersection has an insufficient revenue generation, lower the yellow-light time.

       

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    Walks-In-Storms, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 6:30am

    Dwayne Boring & Company

    So all these people who are against the cameras are really interested in the public's safety? Sure. "I've got some ocean-front property in Arizona,"too. And if you'll buy that, I'll throw the Golden Gate in free.

    My god, people, are we going to pretend we don't recognize whatthis is about. Let Mr. Boring tell and the rest tell us about all their other humanitarian efforts. All the charities for the poor, the disabled, and the homeless?

    What happens next with these birds? When, for instance, the want to remove traffic cops from the highways (that's a "money grab," too, isn't it?)? How about (other) road signs - speed limit, for instance.

    And for "coward," it happens that motor vehicle accident investigation and reconstruction was for seventeen years my business. You're full of it (but you know that don't you; that's not what it's about, now - IS it?!).

     

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    bradykp (profile), Feb 1st, 2012 @ 6:46am

    Revenue?

    The city makes revenue if people break the law. Don't break the law, and the city doesn't make a penny. I don't see what the issue is with using technology to enforce laws where possible, so that police can spend their human hours on more important things. Should radar guns be banned and police be forced to use a stopwatch?

     

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      MrWilson, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 7:32am

      Re: Revenue?

      I keep seeing this suggestion being made in different places where people like you assert that laws need to be enforced strictly in every instance and only aren't because there isn't enough manpower or technology to make it happen.

      It is beneficial to society that we don't enforce every law all the time. Speeders don't get a ticket every time they speed or else we'd all be indebted to the local municipalities for the rest of our lives. Everyone breaks the law in some way, whether they're even aware of it or not. Do you turn yourself in every time you break a law? No? Then don't pretend that we need some technological totalitarian monitoring system to make sure we're not breaking the law. That's not a free society.

       

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        Chosen Reject (profile), Feb 1st, 2012 @ 8:15am

        Re: Re: Revenue?

        The real reason speeders aren't ticketed every time has nothing to do with manpower. It has everything to do with not wanting to make everyone indebted for their lives, just like you say, but not for some altruistic love the government has for its citizens. If every motorist was pulled over any time they went 1 mph over the speed limit, every elected official would be out of office within a month and speed limits would either be raised significantly or entirely abolished.

        To be honest, I think there ought to be higher speed limits and then a sign that gives the recommended speed. Meaning, a sign that says the road was designed for a certain speed given certain conditions (weather, car size, brake efficiency, traffic, etc) and then a sign indicates at what speed you'll be ticketed at. For example, if a road was designed for a speed of 40 mph based on the average car, with average tires, good weather conditions and light traffic, then if it's good weather conditions, no traffic and I'm driving a light car with awesome tires and brakes, I'll be free to drive 50 without having to be on the lookout for a cop. If it's bad weather or heavy traffic or I'm driving a heavy truck with bad tires and soft brakes, then I'll go 30 or whatever conditions call for. Then another sign that says the speed limit (you know, the actual limit) is 65. If you're driving faster than that then you'll get pulled over no matter what the conditions are.

        As it is, speed limits are set not only below what the road is designed for, but also well below what the average speed a person would drive if there were no speed limits on that road. We need to move away from every one driving at the limit, and instead try to get people driving at the recommended speed with a limit being a real limit.

         

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    bradykp (profile), Feb 1st, 2012 @ 6:47am

    Revenue?

    The city makes revenue if people break the law. Don't break the law, and the city doesn't make a penny. I don't see what the issue is with using technology to enforce laws where possible, so that police can spend their human hours on more important things. Should radar guns be banned and police be forced to use a stopwatch?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 7:01am

    The problem with traffic tickets in general is that the entire system from the officers to the procecutors to the judges are paid by the general city fund that relies partially on revenue generated by procecuting these cases meaning that the system has a vested interest in the outcome of each case. Public safety is merely the excuse used to sell the process to the public. The problem is made worse with cameras in that the tickets are sent to the registered owner of the vehicle which may or may not be the driver of the vehicle. At least when an officer writes a ticket, the person who is accused is the person in control of the vehicle.

    Last I remember reading on chron.com (I couldn't find the link) a few months ago the federal district court ignored the results of the referendum because of a city charter that states that policies enacted by city council had to be challenged within 30 days to be valid and since the deal to install the cameras was made months prior (even though as usual the general public wasn't made aware of it then) the referendum was irrelevant. I remember thinking then that we need an ordinance that says that basically the will of the people trumps all other provisions.

     

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    mrshl (profile), Feb 1st, 2012 @ 7:23am

    A few corrections

    1) After the referendum was initially thrown out, City Council passed a resolution that shut down the red light cameras. So they've taken some action to enact the will of the people.

    2) There's a settlement on the table. And it does not involve rebooting the red light camera program. It will be, however, funded by revenues generated from tickets issued when the program was in force.

    http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Red-light-camera-settlement-to-cost-Housto n-2666658.php

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 7:37am

    Red light cameras cause more accidents than they prevent. I have seen numerous studies that have proven this, though the ones that receive publicity are the studies issued by the companies that sell the red light cameras. Cities are genenerally ignoring the safety issues because of the revenue generated by these cameras.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 7:40am

    Yes they did but then they reversed it after the company threatened to sue for breach of contract. The mayor then said that they couldn't HAD to defy the people because it would hurt the people to listen to them passing the blame back to the company. That's when the group that pushed for the referendum in the first place started to get involved in the legal process.

    Entering into a binding contract on behalf of your constituency without consulting that constituency that doesn't allow for the constituency to say "NO!" once they find out about it is irresponsible misrepresentation.

     

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    Travis, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 9:31am

    Nice

    I wish my city would do this...

     

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    Henry, Feb 1st, 2012 @ 10:02am

    Who needs cameras?

    The cameras (indirectly) block emergency vehicles - because cars stopped at a camera hesitate to get out of the way! Other side effects: Rearenders, $$$ sent to Oz, AZ or Goldman-Sachs, where it won't come back, and tourists and shoppers driven away.
    Worse, a false expectation of safety, because cameras can't stop the real late runners, who cause the accidents. (If cameras worked, camera sellers wouldn't have the crash videos they supply to the media.)
    Want safety, no side effects?
    To cut car/pedestrian accidents, train your kids not to step out just 'cuz the walk sign came on.
    To cut nuisance running (a fraction of a second late), lengthen the yellows. It's cheap to do so can be done all over town.
    The dangerous real late (multiple seconds) runs won't be stopped by the mere presence of a camera, because the runner won't know (a lost tourist) or won't remember (a distracted or impaired "local") that there's a camera up ahead. They're not doing it on purpose! To cut the real late runs, improve the visual cues that say, "Intersection ahead." Florida's DOT found that better pavement markings (paint!) cut running by up to 74%. Make the signal lights bigger, add backboards, and put the poles on the NEAR side of the corner. Put brighter bulbs in the street lights at intersections. Put up lighted name signs for the cross streets.
    Who needs cameras and their side effects?

     

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