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The program set up in San Juan Capistrano to use cameras to capture the license plates of drivers who do not heed red traffic lights and continue through the intersection will lose a projected a $40,000 this year.

Crossing in the center of San Juan Capistrano,...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because of this decline in revenue, the city of San Juan Capistrano has decided to end its red-light camera use at two major intersections.

The City Council voted on Wednesday to not renew the annual $232,000 budget that they have contracted out with American Traffic Solutions. The cameras were installed in 2001 and since then, the cameras have generated about $400,000 for the city. Each ticket costs about $500.

However, a severe decline in in the number of citations and some legal problems have made this year’s cut less than half of what it was in previous years and officials expect it to lose about $40,000.

The citations will end after September 29 and tickets that have already been issued will continue being processed through December.

There are several other places in Orange County that still use the red-light cameras to catch violators, such as the cities of Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Laguna Woods and Los Alamitos. The system works by taking photos of the license plates of the motorists and then sends the ticket through the mail.

But a recent court decision has made it much more difficult for cities to defend citations when they are contested, causing the cities to reconsider their use of the cameras.

Laguna Woods City Manager Leslie Keane said that it will think about completely terminating its red-light program at its meeting on June 6. Keane said that their city needs a little more financial security, so cutting funding for the program would help.

In 2010, the Orange County Superior Court decided that law enforcement teams could not use the photos as evidence in cases. They decided that the photos were not clear evidence because no actual officer saw the driver run the red light.

When drivers contest these tickets, the law states that the city must send an attorney to defend the camera. If no lawyer shows up to defend the city, then the motorist automatically wins.

Allen Baylis, one of the attorneys in to 2010 case, said that more lawyers have begun to take on red-light challenge cases. Baylis currently has several hundred cases, even some in San Juan Capistrano. He takes about a $250 fee to defend each motorist.

“I can get decent volume of them, and a lot of my cases end up getting resolved pretty quickly,” Baylis said.

One of the attorneys for the city of San Juan Capistrano, Omar Sandoval, said that it is nearly impossible for the city to defend red-light tickets because it costs the city too much money to hire attorneys.

“There’s preparation and a learning curve upfront, but over time, when everything becomes routine, (defending every ticket) becomes more cost-effective,” Sandoval said.

The red-light program was initially activated to increase public safety and prevent accidents, not to generate revenue, said Sandoval.

Keane said that Laguna Woods has to contract a lawyer to exclusively work on these cases. Although the city gains about $185,000 annually from the camera tickets, they still have to use part of the federal funding to pay for the lawyer.

“The cameras have never paid for themselves,” she said.

Keane does say that she thinks the city is safer because of the cameras, although there is no conclusive evidence that can prove whether or not the cameras affected the number of collisions.

Officials in San Juan Capistrano say that the cameras have affected the behavior of motorists in the city. According to reports, they expect a 32% reduction in citations this year.

Since 2000, just before the cameras were installed, there have been 81% fewer accidents at the Del Obispo/ Camino Capistrano intersection and 44% less at the Ortega Highway/ Camino Capistrano intersection.

Mayor Larry Kramer commended the program: “I think the cameras have done a great job. I hate to see if we’ll have some major accident because these cameras go away.”

Sam Allevato, a councilman in the city, has supported the cameras since the beginning, but he still voted against renewing the contract, because they have reflected negatively on the city.

“It has just become a very negative connotation for our city,” Allevato said.

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