Almanac

Cover Story - November 9, 2011

The right to remain silent

What Menlo Park's "snitch tickets" won't tell you

by Sandy Brundage

Quiz time: You get a "traffic violation notice" from the Menlo Park police department in the mail saying you must identify the person who ran a red light while driving a car registered to you. Included is a photo of the violation snapped by a red-light camera. What are your options, if any?

That question has faced hundreds of people receiving the notices otherwise known as "snitch tickets."

They get sent whenever one of the city's four red-light cameras snaps a photo that isn't clear enough to identify the driver. According to the police, that's about 25 out of every 100 shots. The snitch tickets go to the vehicle's registered owner in hopes of making an i.d.

However, there's no legal obligation for the registered owner to identify the driver, something the notices gloss over.

A real ticket, officially known as a "notice to appear," does come with a responsibility to either pay the fine or go to court, but can only be generated once the police match a name to the face in the photo.

Sgt. Sharon Kaufman, who currently runs the city's red-light program, said the police go to great lengths to get that name.

False threats

A business owner with a fleet of commercial trucks called the Menlo Park police relentless. "They called our office, browbeat our receptionist, and contacted our landlord, looking for someone to spill the beans," the owner said, and requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

The owner gave the Almanac a copy of the snitch ticket. A cover letter written on city letterhead accompanying the notice reads, "You should be advised that California Department of Motor Vehicles may choose not to allow registration of this vehicle until the matter is handled by your company. Should we not receive information regarding the identity of the driver, we will forward a copy to the DMV." The letter was signed by former Menlo Park police officer Maria Sandoval.

But it's a false threat, according to both the DMV and Sgt. Kaufman. "(Officer Sandoval) is no longer with the department. I don't know why she would include that in there. Maybe it was her misunderstanding of the law," she said. "I would not have authorized that had I seen that. If there's no notice to appear, no information is transferred to court and DMV."

The traffic violation notice itself reads, "You must complete all the information in the bottom section and return the completed form." In bold red font, the heading at the top of that bottom section states in both English and Spanish, "Identify new driver — if you were not the driver." It then asks for the driver's name, address, physical description, license number, and date of birth.

The sole hint that this isn't a real citation comes in one sentence, in small (but red) font: "Do not call the court regarding this notice." It doesn't explain why, however; calling the court would be pointless because the court doesn't process snitch tickets, only actual citations.

Who's in charge?

At a Transportation Commission meeting in October, Commissioner Ray Mueller asked Sgt. Kaufman who created the language used on the tickets. Although she initially referred to the state judicial council, Sgt. Kaufman later clarified that in fact, the Menlo Park police department did, in collaboration with other local agencies that contract with Redflex, the vendor providing the cameras.

So the department has the power to change the wording to better inform people of their rights, according to Mr. Mueller. He told the Almanac that the snitch tickets could say, 'This is a pending investigation and we'd appreciate your help to identify the driver, but you're not legally obligated to.'

"People need to be advised of what their legal rights are. You don't just shortcut to make it quick and easy. You have to hold that line on a policy level," he said.

Changing the wording might be harder than talking your way out of a ticket, however. Sgt. Kaufman said she supports the current language. "The reason why I do is that approximately 15 to 20 percent of the notices we send out are these traffic violation notices. And to a large degree, we don't get any information back as it is," she said.

"The form does not coerce people. It asks people to fill out the form completely. The 16-page reports I get back on traffic violation notices that went out that we've never gotten any information back on clearly show people either don't read it, or don't care."

Mr. Mueller said arguing that "some people know about it" undercuts the department's position. "To me that right away screams social inequity, when you get into the matter of someone being more educated and dialed in not necessarily having to do it, if you're one of the people privileged enough to be aware of your rights — they're not cheap tickets," he said.

Data the Almanac obtained from the San Mateo Superior Court showed that those who could afford the time to go to court and argue against the ticket usually paid less than the full $437 fine.

Legal fees

The tickets aren't cheap, and neither is the program. But asking how much the red-light camera program costs Menlo Park is apparently not a straight-forward question.

For instance, the city attorney's office has billed the city approximately $68,000 since the program started in 2008. "The legal fees are probably not included in any figures given by the city for net revenue and administrative costs for the program," City Attorney Bill McClure said.

Those fees include contract review, responding to public records act requests — and going to court. That happens when a driver appeals a case after a judge upholds the citation. "Our best estimate is that we have appeared in five to six cases on appeal with between 10 and 15 total court appearances in the three (plus) years the program has been in place," Mr. McClure said.

City staff estimated that annual revenue from the red-light camera program — not including those legal fees — hovers around a modest $200,000.

Ends and means

No one argues against reducing traffic accidents, and red-light cameras can play an important role. State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who recently lost an attempt to get legislation passed to regulate the programs, said he was very clear that running a red light is dangerous. But the methods of enforcement violate due process, the senator said. "When you send out a notice to people under color of law, saying if you don't identify the driver you get in trouble, it's inappropriate. It's an abuse of process."

Mr. Mueller agreed. "I absolutely support the cameras from a public safety standpoint," he said. "But I think there's enough of an issue here and I'd like the City Council to look at it rather than wait for the state to issue a law."

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