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Woods & Brangwin, PLLC

632 Valley Mall Parkway
East Wenatchee, Washington 98802

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Red Light Cameras, Cell Phones and Big Brother
Written by Steven Woods
Monday, 28 June 2010 20:13
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We all love technology when it works and hate it when it doesn’t.  Our computers have become an indispensible and useful part of our everyday lives, but if the internet is down or our hard drive crashes it can ruin our whole day.  Everyone seems to have a cell phone so we are never out of touch no matter where we are.  Except it drives us crazy if we are some place where there is no signal.  Generally, we all love the new technology.  But how do we feel when it starts to be used against us?


Wenatchee recently installed three cameras designed to catch red light runners.  The cameras are installed at the intersections of Mission and Kittitas Streets, Chelan Avenue and Fifth Street, and Chelan and Orondo.  According to a study the City conducted these three intersections have the most people running red lights so they got the cameras.  So smile if you run a red light at one of these busy intersections as Big Brother is taking your picture.

Well not quite.  Actually a company called American Traffic Solutions in Phoenix is taking the pictures, and the photos are just supposed to be of your car and its license plate as it zips through the red light.  This photo is then sent to the Wenatchee Police Department, who will mail a ticket to the registered owner of the car.  If you get one of these tickets in the mail it will cost you $124.

There are tiny little warning signs up as you approach each of these intersections letting you know that a camera is watching.  The idea is probably that we will try harder to stop for the lights if we know about the cameras, just like we all do if we see a police car nearby.  These signs are also to help eliminate the argument that it is unfair to issue tickets this way.  It is interesting to note that for virtually all other types of infractions, such as speeding, improper turning, etc., the law requires that the infraction occur in the officer’s presence.  The officer must personally witness the infraction or she cannot write a ticket, even if a citizen reports another driver.  So if you are standing at an intersection and step off the curb when the light turns green for you to cross, and a car whizzes through a red light right past your nose, a police officer cannot write a ticket to that driver for running the light even if you record the license plate number and give it to her.  But at these three intersections with cameras, you can get a ticket even if no one sees you but the technician at his computer screen in Phoenix .  Ah, the wonders of technology at work.

If you want to talk about the red light cameras, or anything else, please do not talk on your cell phone while driving.  As of June 10, 2010, it is now illegal to do so if you have your phone up to your ear.  Well it has actually been illegal for a while now, but as of June 10 it has become a primary offense, meaning the police can pull you over for having the phone to your ear, or texting, while driving.  So add this to the list of primary offenses for which you can be stopped even if you are doing nothing else wrong.

This follows the path taken by the seat belt law.  First it was a secondary offense for which you could receive a ticket but which was not a good enough reason to pull you over.  You only got a ticket for no seat belt if the police stopped you for some other reason, like speeding, and you were not wearing your seat belt.  Then it got promoted to a primary offense that justified a stop.  Next thing you knew we had emphasis patrols to enforce this new law.  We had police officers standing at busy intersections peering into passing cars and radioing ahead to officers waiting in cars to pull over offending drivers and give them a $124 ticket.  There was even an imaginative undercover operation in the City of Chelan where an officer dressed like a homeless beggar as he stood at a downtown intersection looking for drivers without seat belts, and using his concealed radio to alert one of several officers waiting around the corner in cars.  Your tax dollars put to creative use.  It is not too hard to imagine similar stings in the near future aimed at cell phone users.

Now don’t get me wrong.  We should all wear our seat belts, as they undoubtedly protect us if we get in an accident.  Dialing, texting and talking on phones can certainly be an unsafe distraction from driving. Anything that takes a driver’s attention from the road is dangerous.  But at some point we have to ask ourselves if it is a good idea to regulate everything we do, especially when it gives the police such an easy way to pull us over.  Suppose you are talking to your passenger and reach up to scratch your ear, or lean against your arm while at a stop light, so that it looks like you are talking on the phone.  Does that justify a stop, as it looks like you might have been breaking the law?  (Before you say this is far-fetched, you might want to talk to the woman going to court with her cell phone records that show she was not on her cell phone at the time she was pulled over and got her ticket while she was doing this very thing.)  And will the police be more inclined to pull someone over at, say, 2:00 AM on a Saturday morning for talking on their phone, just to see if maybe that driver has been drinking?

These are the types of questions that worry defense lawyers and everyday citizens alike.  Every lawyer has seen any number of police reports with very skimpy facts to support a stop, usually occurring late at night.  The new cell phone law may well become yet another way for the police to intrude into our lives.  Such intrusions will cost you at least $124 for the ticket, and may cost you much more.

For now, you are breaking no laws for reading this, unless of course you are on your smart phone while driving.  But we all use our cell phones while driving, and if you drive in Wenatchee you will pass through the intersections with the cameras.  So get a headset for your phone or wait until you get home to make that call.  And stop at all red lights, or at least wash your car so it looks good in the picture.


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