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Washington Traffic-Camera Tickets: Are they Worth Fighting?

Drivers in Washington State are now aware of the traffic cameras posted at numerous intersections and school-zones throughout the State. In 2005 Washington State authorized cities to install traffic cameras for the stated purpose of reducing red-light violations at dangerous intersections and speeding violations in school-zones.  Since 2005 dozens of cities, including our largest cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett, have installed hundreds of these traffic cameras.


Traffic-Camera Tickets Do Not Go on Your Driving Record

Many Washington drivers suspect that these traffic cameras were installed (and maintained) to generate revenue for city governments.  Cities make money when drivers pay the fines associated with traffic-camera tickets.  Representatives of city governments insist that's not the case. They claim traffic cameras reduce traffic infractions in intersections and school-zones, thereby promoting safety.  Source: Association of Washington Cities Legislative Bulletin, published August 11, 2010.  Interestingly, however, when Washington State first created the traffic-camera law back in 2005, the State decided not to require the Department of Licensing to include traffic-camera violations on drivers’ records (“Abstracts”).  Thus, a Washington driver can commit numerous traffic-camera violations without worrying about a license suspension or even higher insurance premiums.  That driver only has to pay fines. If Washington State wants to promote safety, why aren’t there more serious consequences for traffic-camera violators?


Issues with Contesting a Traffic-Camera Ticket

Whatever the real purpose behind Washington State traffic cameras, there are many problems with the way that Washington traffic-camera law works.  First, the cameras only record the vehicle involved in the alleged infraction; they do not record the driver.  Thus, the cameras cannot determine who committed the alleged traffic violation. To get around this problem, Washington State created a presumption that the registered owner of the vehicle was driving the vehicle at the time of the alleged traffic infraction.  This presumption is highly unusual in the law.  In criminal proceedings, there is a presumption of innocence.  The government must prove that the defendant is guilty.  The defendant does not have to prove his innocence.  However, Washington State de-criminalized traffic infractions back in 1985; as a result, the State does not have to provide drivers with the due process that they would receive in a criminal case.

Fortunately for drivers accused of traffic-camera violations, there is still a way to assert their innocence. Drivers wrongfully accused of these violations can sign a “Declaration of Non-Responsibility” in which they deny that they were driving at the time of the alleged violation.  Under Washington law, a court is required to dismiss the traffic ticket upon receipt of this document.

There is another problem with Washington State’s traffic camera law.  The law does not allow a driver accused of a traffic-camera violation to confront the witness against them in a court of law.  In a criminal case, a defendant is constitutionally guaranteed the right to confront and question a witness who provides testimony against him. Thus, defendant can challenge the truth and accuracy of the accusations being made.

Unfortunately, in a Contested Hearing to fight a traffic-camera ticket, Washington drivers are not permitted to confront the witness against them.  In many Washington cities, that witness actually works as a police officer in Arizona. That's because the company who provides traffic cameras to Washington cities is located in Arizona. The Arizona police officer, while working as an employee of the Arizona company, reviews the traffic- camera recordings. After viewing a recording, the officer signs a written statement alleging that the vehicle in the recording committed a traffic infraction.  That statement is later used by a Washington city as evidence against the alleged driver. Washington drivers who challenge their traffic-camera tickets will never get the chance to confront or question the police officer who signed the written statement.  Does this sound remotely fair to Washington drivers?

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