California top court says red light camera photos are evidence
Red light machines are not human, and therefore their images can’t be hearsay.
The California Supreme Court upheld the admissibility of images taken from red light cameras as evidence of traffic violations in the Golden State.
The unanimous decision in the case, known as The People of California v. Goldsmith, marks the end of a five-year-old legal odyssey. Fines issued as the result of a red light camera in California are by far the highest nationwide ($436 in this case)—typically they’re in the $100 range in the rest of the country.
The decision (PDF) comes amid a flurry of challenges to the red light cameras before other state high courts: the Louisiana Supreme Court recently declined to hear such a case, letting stand a lower court ruling that challenged cameras in New Orleans. The Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments against such cameras in Chicago in May 2014. A decision in a similar case currently before the Ohio Supreme Court is expected before the end of the year.
What’s more, some 26 states have already banned the cameras outright or do not have them at all, including Maine, Kentucky, Arkansas, Massachusetts, and many Midwestern states.
The California case involved a woman named Carmen Goldsmith, who was driving a BMW through Inglewood, a Los Angeles suburb, when she ran a red light. She instantly became one of countless people nationwide ticketed by a red light camera. The California woman challenged her citation in a trial court, where she was found guilty and fined $436. She appealed and lost, and then appealed to the state’s highest court.
She based her argument in part on the fact that courts had previously overturned two other red light camera cases in Southern California. In those, appellate courts agreed that a testifying officer had no personal knowledge of how the automated data was collected or whether the camera was working properly at the time. So the evidence of traffic violations was thrown out.
In its 23-page decision, California’s top court countered Goldsmith’s primary argument that the images produced by the automated traffic enforcement system (ATES) were not admissible.
Here the ATES evidence was offered to show what occurred at a particular intersection in Inglewood on a particular date and time when the traffic signal at the intersection was in its red phase. The ATES evidence was offered as substantive proof of defendant‘s violation, not as demonstrative evidence supporting the testimony of a percipient witness to her alleged violation. We have long approved the substantive use of photographs as essentially a “silent witness” to the content of the photographs.
Goldsmith’s attorneys argued that the evidence against her was hearsay, specifically calling out Redflex, a large red light camera contractor that operates the Inglewood cameras, among others across California.
The question of hearsay is an important one: American law does not recognize secondary witnesses—people who say that someone else told them something—to establish admissible evidence.
But the court was clear: machine-created evidence is not hearsay.
The ATES-generated photographs and video introduced here as substantive evidence of defendant’s infraction are not statements of a person as defined by the Evidence Code. (§§ 175, 225.) Therefore, they do not constitute hearsay as statutorily defined. (§ 1200, subd. (a).) Because the computer controlling the ATES digital camera automatically generates and imprints data information on the photographic image, there is similarly no statement being made by a person regarding the data information so recorded. Simply put, ―[t]he Evidence Code does not contemplate that a machine can make a statement.
Goldsmith’s attorneys also argued that, because the Redflex technician in charge of preparing evidence didn’t show up at her trial, the images could not be admitted. What’s more, Goldsmith’s attorneys said that she had the constitutional right to face her accuser. In this case, her accuser is a machine.
She also challenged the character of Redflex, which has a prior record of falsifying speed camera documents (PDF) in Arizona.
The court didn’t bite on that argument, either.
It would be pure conjecture to conclude that all evidence generated by Redflex ATES technology and handled by Redflex employees for Inglewood is suspect because of the actions of a single errant notary public in a different state regarding a different type of technology and documentation. We have denied defendant’s request for judicial notice and reject her argument that the involvement of Redflex in this case requires a different constitutional conclusion.