Monday, January 10, 2011

City takes visitor’s cars off streets - more spaces for us.

As of September 13, 2010, the city announced that the unpaid fines from a red light camera can get your car towed. To anyone unfamiliar with the red light camera program, it is a growing network of traffic light cameras stationed around the city. A camera, timed to the turning of a red light, photographs your license plate. A ticket for $50 is mailed to the vehicle's registration address. Resistance is futile. You can contest the ticket, but don’t stand much of a chance as cameras don’t lie, right?
Red light cameras are a bone of contention in many cities around the country. In DC, the AAA withdrew its support for these cameras when the Mayor admitted he looked at them as a source of revenue. Cities as large as Dallas have been found to shorten yellow lights on camera traffic lights to increase revenue from the increased volume of tickets. Some states have begun to outlaw them. Studies have shown right angle accidents are fewer at camera intersections but rear end collisions are up almost as much.
In addition to the fact that all of NYC is legally a tow-away zone, the city really prefers to tow people who have been ticketed and already owe outstanding fines and penalties of more than $101.00 or anyone who has outstanding tickets and late fees in excess of $350. Now that the city has decided to include fines from these camera violations, a person, especially a long-term visitor to this city, could have their car towed for tickets that they didn’t even know they had. It happened to a friend of mine from Florida who works as a distributor and comes to the city on sales trips. He never even knew he had received 2 red light camera tickets that had been mailed to his home in Florida. And once you’re towed, you’re no position to protest your innocence or demand your right to face your accuser, which is, after all, a piece of machinery. $500 in fees and surcharges later, and climbing, he was just glad to get his car back
So I decided to make a Freedom of Information Law request to the Dept of Transportation for the locations of the red light cameras in the city. The locations would be offered on this blog or added to the parking map. City representatives like to boast that these cameras are only placed at our most dangerous intersections, so a map of these intersections could be a great service to all of us who drive in the city. That kind of public information will only slow down the rate of red light running at these most dangerous intersections and will give anyone who even suspects that he or she (or someone who borrowed their car) may have run a light the chance to look up the intersection and look up any tickets online.
"Request denied... pursuant to FOIL § 87(2)(e). This section states, in part, that an agency may deny access to records or portions thereof that, are compiled for law enforcement purposes.” This is one of the few legitimate reasons that a FOIL request can be denied, but I was having trouble understanding to what kind of compilation for law enforcement purposes they referred. That section of the FOIL law states an agency may deny access to records or portions thereof that:
(e) are compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would:
i. interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings;
ii. deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication;
iii. identify a confidential source or disclose confidential information relating to a criminal investigation; or
iv. reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures, except routine techniques and procedures;
This was no case of a fair or unfair trial and everything else (i, iii, iv) in FOIL § 87(2)(e) related to some kind of investigation, but what kind of investigation were they talking about. Investigation implies some kind of police activity, fact gathering, finally getting their man (or woman), but a beginning and an end, right? Red light cameras have been in NYC since 1993 so this must be one of those cold cases or what at news conferences are called an “ongoing investigation” which is usually just spin for we don’t know anything yet. So when does this investigation end? I decided to appeal their rejection. I cited the city’s new tow policy as a loophole to deny visitors or someone who’s ticket got “lost in the mail” their constitutional rights to protect and defend themselves; pointed out that this information was already public at web sites like and Red Light Camera Locations; and asked expressly that if they were to deny this appeal to give a specific reason like an i, ii, iii, or iv. Denied – no additional wording.
Still investigating I guess. But it’s not like you get a ticket or points on your license for these alleged investigations and the fines are less than if you are stopped by a police officer. Besides, what is the traffic enforcement advantage of keeping the information of dangerous intersections or camera locations that could deny us our basic right of due process a secret?
What are they really investigating? On the DOT’s web site we are told:
The NYC Department of Finance is responsible for collecting and processing payments of these violations as well as holding hearings for drivers who wish to dispute the Notices of Liability they receive.
The collection and hearings are handled by the Dept of Finance. Hmm. These cameras cost about $60,000 each and are a huge profit for their manufacturers (who, in some municipalities, actually operate the ticketing process). The city anticipates bringing in over $170 million from these cameras this year. Could it be that this top secret investigation of theirs is for that most elusive of criminals… revenue?