This article was posted on Friday, Aug 01, 2014

Hello everybody. It is rare that the California Supreme Court issues a decision addressing ordinary traffic laws, such as stopping at a red light. However, on June 5, 2014, the high Court did just that. It determined that red light cameras mounted adjacent to traffic signals are lawful and that the photographs and videos that they take may be introduced into evidence against a driver accused of running a red light.

In People v. Goldsmith, Carmen Goldsmith was cited for failing to stop at a red traffic light at the intersection of Centinela  Avenue and Beach Avenue in the City of Inglewood. The alleged violation was of California Vehicle Code Section 21453, which provides: “A driver facing a steady circular red signal alone shall stop at a marked limit line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on near side of the intersection or, if none, than before entering the intersection, and shall remain stopped until an indication to proceed is shown … .”

In other words, a driver must stop at a red light before entering the intersection. Failure to do so is a violation of law. Of course ─ we all know that.

Historically, all “red light” traffic tickets were based on the personal observation (or perception) of a peace officer. More recently, cameras have replaced the police officer’s eyes at some intersections in some cities, like Beverly Hills. On the other hand, within the past year or so the City of Los Angeles decommissioned all red light cameras within its jurisdiction.

In the Goldsmith case, driver Carmen was found guilty of a traffic infraction of California Vehicle Code based on the evidence of three photographs and a twelve second video. The visual depictions were generated by an “automatic traffic enforcement system,” which in common parlance is known as a red light camera.

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The trial was conducted before a traffic commissioner, with only one witness present. That witness was an investigator for the Inglewood Police Department, who testified that he was assigned to the traffic division in the red light camera enforcement section and that he had more than 6 years experience in that assignment.

The investigator explained how the computer-based digital red light camera system operates “independently” and records events occurring within an intersection after the traffic signal has turned red.  He also testified that the photographic recordings are stored on a hard disk of a computer at the scene, with the information retrieved periodically throughout the day through an internet connection.

He further testified that the first photograph is taken before the vehicle enters the intersection and includes a camera angle which shows the red light in the background. The second photograph is taken with the vehicle in the intersection, and a third photo focuses on the vehicle’s license plate.

Finally, a 12 second video reveals the approach and progression of the vehicle through the intersection. In other words, if that documentary evidence was admissible, driver Carmen was nailed, so to speak.

But wait, there’s more: The investigator testified that the first photograph established that the traffic light had been red for 0.27 seconds and that the speed of the defendant’s car was 53 miles an hour at the time the image was captured. The second photograph was taken 0.66 seconds later depicting the vehicle in the intersection while the light remained in the red light phase.

Carmen, through her attorney, objected to all that testimony on the basis that it lacked foundation and was hearsay.  Carmen also argued that the photographs were not properly authenticated and that they too were hearsay. (For a detailed discussion of “hearsay” please see my column in the September 2007 issue of AOA Magazine.)

The trial court rejected those objections and found beyond a reasonable doubt that Carmen was guilty of failing to stop at a red light signal. The traffic commissioner then imposed a $436 fine.

Following the conviction, Carmen appealed the guilty verdict, which was eventually considered and upheld by the California Court of Appeal. Thereafter, Carmen petitioned the California Supreme Court to review the case and reverse the conviction.

By the time the case reached the high Court, at least 21 attorneys were involved in writing briefs or appearing in the action. Some of those attorneys represented the driver, with the remainder representing law enforcement as well as various cities throughout the state, such as West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Garden Grove, and Santa Ana.

The cities that hired lawyers to appear before the Supreme Court had a direct interest in having red light camera tickets upheld. Conspicuously absent was any attorney on behalf of the City of Los Angeles.

The California Supreme Court believed that Carmen’s individual case was so important to the judicial system and drivers at large, it accepted her petition to review the lower courts’ determinations, to analyze the facts and law, and to render its own decision.

Ultimately the high Court ruled against driver Carmen and upheld the general validity of citations issued through the use of red light cameras. In doing so, the seven justices unanimously determined that the photographs, videos and testimony of the investigator introduced at trial in Carmen’s case were all admissible and credible.

Your Author’s Remarks

The case is noteworthy in three respects:

  1. Red light camera tickets are now enforceable throughout the State of California. However, trial attorneys who represent drivers receiving such citations should carefully review footnote six (6) in the Supreme Court’s opinion as the justices left open some possible arguments to defeat a future ticket. Those include questions regarding proper calibration of the cameras, the maintenance of the cameras, and appropriate certification of the equipment installed at the intersection.
  2. Our judicial process in California proceeds at a snail’s pace. That is to say, the citation was issued on March 13, 2009, but the judgment did not become final until more than 5 years later when the Supreme Court issued its opinion on June 5, 2014.
  3. A red light means exactly what one would expect it to mean, to wit: the driver’s vehicle must come to a complete stop if the light is red before the car enters the intersection, and that cessation of movement itself must be before the start of the intersection.

What does all this have to do with AOA members? Simply that apartment owners driving hurriedly from building to building need to be deferential to traffic signals, particularly red lights, as I am sure AOA readers already are.

Breaking News

On June 26, 2014 the California Court of Appeal published a decision upholding the right of an apartment owner to credit the reduced or free rent that he/she gives to a resident manager against the manager’s minimum wages which would otherwise be due under law. Prior to July 1, 2014, that credit was $451.89 for a single manager and $668.46 for a couple. Effective July 1, 2014 the credits increased to $508.38 per month and $752.02 respectively.

I will review this newest case in the September 2014 issue of this AOA Magazine. However, my detailed discussion of the new 2014 wage and hour laws for resident managers published in the July issue of this magazine was 100% consistent with the Appellate Court’s decision. 

Dale Alberstone is a prominent litigation and transactional real estate attorney who has specialized in real property law for the past 37 years. He has been appointed to periodically serve as a judge pro tem of the Los Angeles Superior Court and is a former arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association. He also testifies as an expert witness for and against other attorneys who have been accused of legal malpractice.

Mr. Alberstone has been awarded an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell. An AV rating reflects an attorney who has reached the heights of professional excellence and is recognized for the highest levels of skill and integrity. You may Google “Dale S. Alberstone” for further background.          

The foregoing article was authored on July 1, 2014.  It is intended as a general overview of the law and may not apply to the reader’s particular case. Readers are cautioned to consult an advisor of their own selection with respect to any particular situation.

Address correspondence to Dale S. Alberstone, Esq., ALBERSTONE & ALBERSTONE, 1900 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 650, Los Angeles, California 90067.  Phone:  (310) 277-7300.

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