Hello everybody.  Owning apartment buildings is not a 9 to 5 job.  In fact, it is 24/7 work.  An owner never knows when a tenant or resident manager will telephone or text about an emergency in a building, be it a fire, water coming through the tenant’s ceiling, the motorized garage gate won’t close (or worse, it won’t open), etc.  Conscientious landlords may then hop into their cars and rush over to the complex.

Even if no emergency exists, owners often hustle from building to building to show vacancies, sign leases with new tenants, meet with contractors, deal with gardeners, inspect the grounds, and so forth. In other words, landlords are frequently in a hurry to get to their building or drive from building to building if they own multiple properties.One latent adverse consequence (other than causing an accident) of being in a rush is the potential of running a red light while simultaneously having your picture taken by a City’s nifty street intersection camera that is focused on you and your vehicle.  Trust me, that is not a “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera” moment. There are about 33 cities in California that have installed “red light cameras.”  Among them, are San Francisco, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Napa, Oxnard, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Ventura and West Hollywood, to name a few. So this month, I thought it might be interesting for AOA members to hear how the California Supreme Court views red light camera tickets.

In People v. Goldsmith (59 Cal.4th 258), the high court explained that Carmen Goldsmith was cited for failing to stop at a red traffic light at the intersection of Centinela 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 the 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 perception of a peace officer.  More recently, cameras have replaced the police officer’s eyes at numerous intersections in 33Californiacities.  (Incidentally, several years ago the City of Los Angeles commissioned 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.  He testified that he was assigned to the traffic division in the red light camera enforcement section and that he had more than six years of 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 February 2014 issue of AOA Magazine.)

The trial court rejected Carmen’s 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. 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. Carmen was guilty.

Concluding Remarks

The Supreme Court’s case is noteworthy in three respects:

  1. Red light camera citations are enforceable in cities throughout the State of California who choose to install such cameras.  However, trial attorneys who represent drivers receiving such citations should carefully review footnote 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, Carmen’s citation was issued five years before the Supreme Court’s decision in the case.
  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 turns red before the car enters the intersection, and that cessation of movement itself must be before the start of the intersection.

So 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 hope AOA readers already are.

Dale Alberstone is a prominent real estate attorney who has specialized in real property law for the past 40+ years.  He also serves as a mediator of real estate disputes 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.

The foregoing article was authored in October 2018.  It is intended as a general overview of California 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.

Questions of a general nature are warmly invited.  Address correspondence to Dale S. Alberstone, Esq., ALBERSTONE & ALBERSTONE, 269 S. Beverly Drive, Suite 1670; Beverly Hills, California 90212.  Phone:  (310) 277-7300.