Almanac

Viewpoint - November 16, 2011

Editorial: Pushy 'snitch ticket' letters out of line

Of all the potential revenue sources available to  Menlo Park, the $200,000 or so it receives from four red-light cameras has to be the most misunderstood and least compelling.

The cameras are owned and operated by a private contractor, although the city does share in the revenue from fines, which is often more than $400 per ticket. But the system is not infallible. Some judges have thrown out the tickets when a police officer is not present in court, or a technical issue arises, such as signal timing at the camera's intersection.

Police believe use of the cameras increases the safety of the intersections, which are specifically chosen due to the high traffic volume and accident history. Some drivers say the cameras smack of "Big Brother" enforcement and are just a way for the city to generate revenue from defenseless drivers.

However, many drivers may not know that the system is not infallible. According to the Menlo Park Police Department, in about 25 percent of the cases, the camera catches the infraction and the license number of the car but misses a clear shot of the driver, which is required to prosecute. So in order to recover a portion of this revenue the city is going to great lengths to put pressure on vehicle owners to identify the driver at the time of incident.

Many owners receive official-looking letters saying they could face court action if they do not turn over a name.

The only problem, as Almanac reporter Sandy Brundage found out when writing a story about "snitch tickets" last week, is that while it may be legal for the city to pressure the owners of vehicles that are photographed running a red light, the owner has absolutely no legal obligation to "snitch" or share the identity of the driver of the vehicle with the city.

Use of such high-pressure-tactics, which apparently has been approved by the top officers in the Menlo Park Police Department, was revealed at a recent Transportation Committee meeting, where Commissioner Ray Mueller challenged the wording on the city's "snitch" letters.

The confusion arises from the tone of the letter, which says, "You must complete all the information in the bottom section" and return the completed form. And in bold red type, it orders the recipient of the letter to, "Identify new driver — if you were not the driver," and then asks for the drivers' name, address, physical description, license number and date of birth.

There is only one clue that the letter is not a real citation. It says, "Do not call the court regarding this notice." That is because the court, which only keeps records of actual tickets, would have no information on a ticket that is not completed.

The officer in charge of Menlo Park's red-light tickets, Sgt. Sharon Kaufman, believes the instructions on the snitch letters are acceptable, which she justifies by saying that very few of the letters are actually returned.

"The form does not coerce people. It asks people to fill out the form completely."

Commissioner Mueller has another view. He said the snitch ticket letters could be more cordial, and say something like, "This is a pending investigation and we'd appreciate your help to identify the driver, but you are not obligated to."

Menlo Park, like several other nearby communities, contracts with Redflex to administer the red-light program, which includes the cameras and photographs of the infraction.

But when the camera fails to identify a face behind the wheel, the city should simply discard the ticket and move on. Why send out threatening letters when the city has no legal authority to coerce vehicle owners into revealing the name and address of whoever was driving the vehicle that day?

Commissioner Mueller got it right. The city should revise its letter that demands vehicle owners "snitch" on who was driving during a red-light infraction. This type of high-pressure tactic has no place in a city government like Menlo Park, which should pride itself on serving residents, not browbeating them to share information that they are not obligated to give up.

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