Category: Arizona

A problem of photo enforcement is that it encourages optimization of efficiency of collecting fines as opposed to justice. In my experience, these systems have almost invariably led to a culture of enforcement and prosecution based on the bottom line, with protecting the innocent becoming only an afterthought.

Background

Supporters of these systems contend that cameras are cheaper and more efficient than employing officers to do the same job. They figure that a wizard in a box will never be wrong and we can somehow achieve 100% enforcement, with no collateral victims. With this mindset, it follows that any person who contests a ticket is simply a wrongdoer looking for a loophole to escape responsibility. If such a wrongdoer wants to fight his ticket, the logic goes, the odds should be stacked against him. All of that innocent until proven guilty stuff the founding fathers worried about is no longer important when we have a wizard in a box with perfect accuracy. Further, it costs money to run the courts, so if a wrongdoer wants to present his case in court, it seems only fair that he should shoulder the cost to contest.

The problem: there is no wizard. The systems do make mistakes. I’ve personally been the recipient of two such mistaken citations. The first showed another man in another vehicle altogether. The second was issued in violation of French law and clearly shows me driving below the speed limit. Here I will describe both in terms of costs to the defendant.

Citation #1: Scottsdale, Arizona

The first ticket was dismissed eventually, but not before a couple weeks of shenanigans. First, I wasted a couple hours of my vacation talking to the judge and then meeting with the prosecutor. The prosecutor agreed to a dismissal, but also accused me of wasting her time. Unfortunately her office made a mistake on the paperwork so I received a letter the following week from the court informing me of my new court date. I called the prosecutor and eventually this was all fixed, but not without significant stress and time on my part at a time when I was already in the midst of a big move from Ohio to Iowa. Because of all the legal maneuvering, I ended up with 20-something entries on my criminal background check, which will now be visible to potential employers, etc., even though I was not at all involved in the alleged offense (and the prosecutor’s office agrees). I understand that the records are generated automatically when dealing with a court, but I figured I should have some ability to get them expunged given that this was all because of a simple mistake. However, the court in Scottsdale has a policy not to expunge these tickets (I really don’t get the rationale here). So in the end, the City of Scottsdale is libeling me in perpetuity, for objecting to being charged with a crime I did not commit and for which they had zero evidence.

But the city of Scottsdale’s libel didn’t start there. It turns out that some companies have longstanding freedom of information act requests for all photo citations. For this reason, when I found the ticket in my pile of mail, it was surrounded by advertisements for how to beat my ticket. I generally support freedom of information. In fact, I successfully fought the Ames Police Department when they violated such laws. But, this seems like a situation where my personal information should have been redacted. More importantly, while the correct approach to government transparency is beyond the scope of this post, this shows that false citations have a very real impact on defendants’ privacy.

Citation #2: Écully, France

I was found guilty of the second violation, which (allegedly) occurred in France, though hopefully you will read my story because my innocence is really quite apparent. The question of guilt or innocence isn’t really what’s important here. Just note that I had a strong case. This wasn’t some minor point I was arguing. I deserved a proper day in court because I had what many people would agree were reasonable concerns about the accuracy of the ticket. To get this day in court, I had to do the following:

  • Pay an additional EUR 53.24 over the base EUR 45.00 fine (total spent = 218% of the base fine). This could have been much, much more. The judge has the ability to increase the fine to approximately eight-fold, but in practice it seems to be a minimum of double the initial fine. If the judge finds your argument unreasonable, you’ll likely get the high end.
  • Wait 1.5 years for resolution.
  • Write at least five letters (in French) to the authorities. Some went unanswered, including requests for technical details of the radar device that took the photo.

In the following sections, I’ll describe the decision to contest a French ticket in terms of decision theory. I did take a graduate course devoted to this topic, but actually I always found it to be really intuitive. Here is a comprehensive graphic, to be described in the following sections.

decision tree - contest a ticket

Alternative #1: Admit guilt and pay immediately

The first possibility, upon receiving a photo ticket, is to simply pay up. In France, for infractions on roads with a speed limit greater than 50 km/h and with a ticketed speed of less than 20 km/h over that limit, the fine is EUR 45, if paid within 15 days. Bear in mind that this 15-day clock is already started by time you receive the ticket. France does not include photos with the original citation. I suspect this is for two reasons:

  • Many people will just assume they broke the law and not consider contesting, but the photo might change their mind.
  • Because the French government is incompetent slower than molasses, it is unlikely that a defendant will receive the original ticket by post and also have time to request and receive the photos by post before the 15-day early payment deadline has passed. Of course it’s not smart to make the decision to contest until you examine the evidence, so this presents a dilemma.

The expected value of choosing this alternative is easy to calculate. There is a 100% chance that you will pay EUR 45.

Alternative #2a: Contest, but only in writing

Granted the decision to proceed to court needn’t be made until a verdict is reached on the written appeal. However, as no new information would generally be available at this later date, there is no value in delaying the decision, meaning that the process can be simplified by assuming you make this decision up front.

The expected value of this alternative can be calculated by multiplying the probability of each outcome by the respective amount paid. Because we do not know the probability of succeeding in court, we cannot solve this in absolute terms. But, we can solve for the success probability above which a rational person will contest. The math shows that a rational person should be willing to contest in writing only if there is greater than a 54% chance of success.

From looking around the internet and from my knowledge of other jurisdictions, I think 54% is very optimistic for a written appeal. It seems that these guys reject almost everything, likely to force defendants to wait another year and proceed to court. Note that I’m not necessarily claiming that the individuals who read the appeals are crooks. In fact, I believe the system is set up by crooks, so that the decision-makers’ options are fairly limited. Also, don’t forget all the normal stuff about how the average person has irrational faith in the wizard who resides in the camera. These people have no real training or incentive to believe you, much less find you innocent.

Alternative #2b: Contest, with willingness to proceed all the way to court

The computation for this final alternative (in fact, there is technically an additional level of appeal, that I won’t cover here) is more involved because the tree has two levels. The best we can do is make the crazy assumption that probability of success on the written appeal equals that in the courtroom. In this case, the math shows that the probability of success must be greater than 32% at each stage for this to be a rational choice (given a willingness/ability to wait 1.5 years).

In reality, the chance of success in the courtroom is likely greater than in writing (and the probabilities are not independent for a given case), but I doubt very much that the win probability in either phase is as high as 32%. Not only can we see my data point, in which I lost even though the camera’s certification was clearly violated, but other anecdotal evidence leads me to believe the chances of success are extremely low in most places in the world (again, irrational belief in wizards, and all that).

The realistic state of freedom in such a system

Of course the calculations above were quite contrived. There is no way to know what your chances are before contesting a ticket using a given argument. This exercise was simply intended to demonstrate the problems with a pay-for-liberté court system.

We can see how they ratchet up the cost at each phase in order to tilt the scales. Given that succeeding in such a trial is extremely rare, unless you actually have a photo of a different car committing the crime, the rational choice is always to just admit guilt and pay. The system is unscrupulous by design, so you would only contest due to strong principles and free cash flow, not because you expect to be vindicated. Poor people don’t really have the liberty of contesting a traffic ticket. I suppose they at least get a free lawyer in extreme circumstances, which undoubtedly helps their chances, but if you barely have enough money to eat would you really want to risk paying twice the original fine?

A fair justice system is only possible if the financial burden is placed on all residents. Deterrents, in the form of financial or other burdens, should be eliminated to the extent possible. Additionally, funding the courts on the backs of losers is a clear conflict of interest. Remember, no safety is gained by collecting fines from innocent drivers.

As a final note, yes I am happy with my choice to fight. The system did lose money on me, which is usually the most you can ask for in modern court systems. I would generally encourage readers to make the same choice.

Arizona court France photocop speeding

I was in Arizona in the spring of 2007 and I rented a car to drive to Nevada for the weekend. The car was a Chrysler PT Cruiser, rented from Enterprise Rent-A-Car. I went home to Ohio a couple days later and returned to the house in Tempe in July. On the last full day of my July trip, I went through the mail that my roommate had collected for me. I found a Scottsdale photocop ticket amongst the papers. I also noticed a lot of junk mail for how to beat photocops, so apparently this ticket was publicly released.

Here are scans of what I received:
Incorrect photo citation from Scottdale Arizona - text pageIncorrect photo citation from Scottdale Arizona - image page

If you look critically at these images, you should be able to easily spot the error. The vehicle shown is a Jeep Liberty while the ticket refers to a “CHRY PTE.” It would be somewhat forgivable if the readers of this page don’t catch that, but a person who is trained to review these before sending them out should spot it immediately. Notice that Bill Harper has “signed” the ticket.

I am aware that all I really had to do was throw the ticket away because they would never have been able to serve me in Ohio. Due to an experience my uncle had and other stories I’ve read online about dishonest process servers, I thought I’d just go down to the courthouse and clear this up (I was innocent, after all). I had been planning to drive up to North Scottsdale to work on my boat, so I stopped by the courthouse on my way. I didn’t see any reason to change into something nicer than my “working on the boat” clothes, so I wore jeans, a sleeveless shirt, and some sandals. I got to go in and speak to the judge but, since there is no prosecutor at those hearings, he could do nothing for me. I believe that a prosecutor is not present at those hearings because the system is set up to facilitate people just paying and not fighting. All he could do was schedule a court date in a few weeks. Obviously that was not going to work for me since I was going home the next day. I did get the judge to direct me to the prosecutor’s office, which was behind the courthouse. I went over there and waited a few minutes to speak to the prosecutor that handles photocop tickets. She was friendly and agreed to get it dismissed. When I asked her who Bill Harper is, she said I was wasting her time and that she wanted to eat lunch! I sarcastically told her that I had planned on eating lunch as well, at which point she sort of acknowledged my wasted time. It’s not like she really had any option but to dismiss the charges. If she had brought me to court knowing that all of the evidence pointed to another person, it would have been malicious prosecution.

A week later, my roommate in Tempe called me saying I got a letter from the Scottsdale courts. I had him open it and it turned out that the motion to dismiss had been denied! I had a court date set for the exact date of my move to Iowa. It said if I didn’t show up, I would have a default judgement issued against me. I wondered who the heck I was going to fight in court if the prosecutor agreed with me, but obviously this would not do. I called the prosecutor’s office and eventually got ahold of her. She looked into it and eventually called me and apologized and said she was embarrassed that this happened, but apparently the paperwork was filed wrong. She filed it again and the next week I got a letter saying that the case had been dismissed.

What happened

I have communicated with several people about this. They all confirmed and enhanced what I already knew about how the system works. Apparently at the time of my ticket, Scottsdale had a contract with Redflex to administer their cameras. Redflex is a private company that sells, calibrates, and operates these systems (an obvious conflict of interest). Apparently what happened in my case is that the license plate photo was blurry so the computer accused the wrong car. Enterprise Rent-A-Car pointed at me, so I got the ticket. Redflex is supposed to have three people look at each ticket and then, once they have approved it, a police officer is supposed to give it a final review before sending it out. It is common sense that the only reason that a person reviews the tickets is to pacify the public, who would be alarmed that a computer could wrongly accuse a person. In my case they all failed to notice that the vehicle in the picture said “JEEP” in large letters on the back, when they were ticketing a PT Cruiser. This is probably because the system is more interested in the money than properly identifying the culprit.

The players

Some of them have been more helpful than others but none of them seem to value my time. They all have the attitude that I got lucky and handled this properly so I didn’t have serious problems. I think that my time is important and they need an exercise in humility so they should write me an apology letter.

  • Frank Vardon-Dove: This is the representative that I have been speaking to from Enterprise Rent-A-Car. He initially defended their position in cooperating with police. But then I pointed out that due dilligence (looking at the citation) would have protected me from this and it was probably a legal matter to violate my privacy by giving out my information whenever someone asked for it. Also I mentioned that Enterprise is the only rental company known for doing this. Most others don’t turn the drivers over, from what I’ve read. I sent him a copy of the citation to review. Eventually he called me and said that they have implemented a system in which they will verify the plates for future citations. Also he sent me a coupon for a free rental. I couldn’t be happier with his response. If they must involve themselves in this broken system, they should protect their innocent customers and take responsibility for mistakes that happen.
  • Richard D. Baranzini: This is who I initially communicated with from the Scottsdale Police Department. He was very helpful, but does not care about the trouble I went through and the implications of this mistake. I was basically required to go to court to fight evidence that pointed to somebody else. That a computer can cause this and that proper checks weren’t in place should raise red flags. He also told me that a long-standing freedom of information request is the reason private companies found out about the citation.
  • Robert Salcido: This is an employee of Redflex. He is obviously unapologetic and I believe he lied to me about an important detail of their system. He also incorrectly believes that his email signature bars me from repeating what he says. Unsurprisingly, given his stance on photocops, he has no understanding of the law and in reality a legally-binding contract cannot be imposed in an email signature. In any case, he said exactly what was expected of a company that makes money by bending the constitution. He just regurgitated the standard lines about how his hardworking employees (3 of them) somehow missed the mistake.
  • Bruce Kalin: This is Richard Baranzini’s boss at the Scottsdale PD. I sent him an email outlining how this was a hassle for me and how any amount of hassle was unacceptable when it was completely due to a failure on the parts of the Scottsdale PD and their contractors.
  • Bill A. Harper: His signature is printed on the citation. Because he certified the accuracy of the citation, it really should be him who I sue. However, I’m sure he has some immunity that protects him from the need to be ethical or legal. What he did seems to be clear cut fraud.

Why this matters

Laws have been broken with respect to my privacy and my right to confront my accuser. Since the information was seen by companies and possibly my insurance company, it is important that a person does the ticketing instead of a computer. The release of my information, strictly based on false information that brief due diligence would have spotted seems like libel. A few years later, I discovered that anybody doing a background check on me will find 20-something records related to getting this ticket cleared up. Though I was ultimately cleared, it does look bad to have so much activity on my record. Given that Scottsdale has a policy not to expunge records from photo tickets, this seems like punishment for standing up for myself. One day, if I am in Arizona long enough, I’d really like to look into suing the city to get this cleared up.

Regardless of what statistics exist (or don’t exist) pertaining to the lives saved by these systems, any system that would falsely accuse somebody from out of state in this way is completely unacceptable. If I hadn’t gotten my mail, I could have had a warrant out for me. I wasted a few hours and many cell-phone minutes on this, some while on vacation and some while I was preparing to move from Ohio to Iowa. This was a very busy part of my life without all of this. Expedience should never be a justification for trampling on rights like this. What was wrong with the old way of just having a cop give out tickets?

Arizona photocop Redflex