Update, Oct. 25: Subsequent to writing this piece, I was notified by the mayor’s office the woman in the WWL story upon which this piece was based had rented the car she was ticketed for, and that she was thus still responsible for the ticket. While that information does change the story, it still presents some issues about the camera system, which are addressed in a postscript below.
Those traffic cameras certainly are insidious. It was once assumed that you could avoid getting a red-light camera ticket, at the very least, by simply not owning a car. That commonsense presumption has now been proven false.
This past week, our partners at WWL-TV reported on the woeful tale of one Linda Bordelon. To recap, Ms. Bordelon sold her car this past March and now doesn’t drive. Thus, when she received a red-light camera ticket in June, she was taken aback.
“I get this thing in the mail saying that in June 2013 I ran a traffic light, and I said, how can that be?” Bordelon asked rhetorically. “The license plate listed was not the license plate of the car I sold.”
Not only did the vehicle being ticketed not belong to Bordelon, but it wasn’t a vehicle she had ever owned. Due to some factor, whether identity theft or a clerical error, Bordelon’s name popped up in connection with this car.
Bordelon apparently challenged the ticket with the New Orleans Administrative Hearing Center (AHC), which is supposed to provide a neutral, objective hearing officer to review camera tickets based on procedural and evidentiary procedures provided for under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). Challenges can be made in-person or in writing.
The result? Bordelon was found to be “responsible.”
I could have predicted this outcome. The AHC was created for the sole purpose of upholding tickets and discouraging people from mounting challenges. If you go in person, the AHC normally forces you to wait for hours to see a hearing officer, and instead of following the APA and reaching an objective determination, that hearing officer is a pathetic hack who fails to create a proper record and assumes facts for which no evidence is provided. In other words, it’s a kangaroo court.
If you make a challenge to the AHC in writing (as you would do based on an obvious defect, like not owning a car), the result is the same, except the AHC likely feels more comfortable in disregarding any defenses you may assert because your statements are not made under oath.
As WWLTV reported, in order to challenge the ticket Bordelon must pay a $50 non-refundable fee for an appeal to Traffic Court, meaning she cannot get her costs back even if the city openly admits error.
The lack of a refundable fee is bad enough, but it doesn’t stop there. The appeal to Traffic Court is de novo, meaning that the city gets a chance to admit new evidence and doesn’t merely have to rest on the record from the AHC (which is great for the city, because the AHC’s records would never pass constitutional standards).
Thankfully, WWLTV spoke with a spokesperson for the city, who said that he didn’t know how this happened, but would look into Bordelon’s case. Reviewing Bordelon’s case was, of course, the job of the AHC.
There is a reason why cases like Bordelon’s arise, and it’s a simple one: The traffic cameras are all about money.
Because the traffic cameras are about money, the city decided to ticket the owners of vehicles instead of the drivers. Indeed, they made no attempt to position cameras to where the driver would be photographed (something that is, in fact, done in other jurisdictions). As the law is written, the identity of the driver of a ticketed vehicle is mostly irrelevant: the owner is jointly liable for fines.
Because the traffic cameras are about money, the city also opted to make them difficult to challenge. Every dollar spent on due process is a dollar less of “profit” on the camera scheme. Accordingly, the city assigned camera tickets to the AHC, a rubber-stamp.
Originally, AHC determinations could only be challenged via appeals on the record under the APA in Civil District Court, but Mayor Landrieu recently moved these appeals to Traffic Court. Landrieu claimed that he was moving the appeals to Traffic Court to allow citizens to avoid high filing fees in Civil District Court, yet he made the appeal fee non-refundable and made the appeals de novo in order in ensure that citizens would still not receive due process.
Due process is expensive, and the camera scheme won’t foot the bill for it. That’s the bottom line.
I know there are still some misguided citizens out there who believe that traffic cameras are a boon to traffic safety, and that the only people who need to worry about them are scofflaws. Hopefully, Bordelon’s bizarre experience will serve as a wake-up call to these crones so obsessed with punishing petty traffic violations that they turned a blind eye to obvious abuses by the city and its private contractor, American Traffic Solutions.
Folks, this is what a happened here: A person who doesn’t even own a car was cited for running a red light. When she complained, the city failed to investigate her claims, held her responsible anyway, and demanded that she pay up or fork over a $50 non-refundable fee – a fee that would actually give the city a second chance to make its case.
This is Orwellian. Our city is running an extortion scheme that would make Carlos Marcello proud, and it is clear that no way exists to avoid becoming a victim.
Postscript, Oct. 23:
Based on the information sent to us and WWL by the mayor’s office, it appears that Ms. Bordelon had rented a car, and that the rental car company received the citation and responded by submitting an affidavit attesting that the vehicle was in Ms. Bordelon’s custody at the time the citation was issued. The city then sent the citation to Ms. Bordelon, but failed to notify her of the existence of the affidavit. Ms. Bordelon apparently forgot about renting the vehicle and challenged the citation in writing, simply saying: “I do not own this car! I do not own any car.”
The Administrative Hearing Center subsequently held a hearing and, after admitting the affidavit, held Ms. Bordelon “Responsible.” The city then mailed its determination to Ms. Bordelon, which stated that she was held “Responsible” and, “Reason: No Defense.” The determination failed to disclose that the city had decided against her on the basis of an affidavit from the rental car company.
Ms. Bordelon has since been contacted and has confirmed that she did rent the car in question.
Although more facts have come to light in this story, they still reveal critical flaws and illegalities in the city’s adjudication of traffic camera citations. The city failed to notify Ms. Bordelon that she was being accused as the driver of a rental car based on an affidavit submitted by a third-party. Before the city submitted the third-party affidavit into evidence, it was obligated to share it with Ms. Bordelon. The city also should have notified Ms. Bordelon of the reason for its determination, rather than simply saying that she had “No Defense.”
While my column was based on a story that has now been shown to be incomplete, my central point holds that the city’s adjudication process for camera tickets is not consistent with due process. Had the city acted appropriately, Mr. Bordelon would have received proper notice and WWL’s story would never have aired.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.