12 Defenders: Fixing red light camera issues

Published: Feb. 13, 2015 at 12:26 PM CST|Updated: Apr. 24, 2015 at 3:39 PM CDT
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(Source: WSFA 12 News)
(Source: WSFA 12 News)

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Last week, a 12 News Defenders Investigation uncovered flaws in process of issuing red light camera tickets. People were getting tickets who didn't deserve them. On Thursday, we exposed why this is happening and fixes that will be implemented because of our investigation.

Officials tell WSFA 12 News reporter Bethany Davis that the problem is not with the cameras. It's more about what happens after the light turns red and they snap a picture. The tickets these cameras are generating have exposed a pattern of problems that we can now say are being addressed.

These red light cameras aren't going anywhere, anytime soon. If you ask Montgomery's Public Safety Director Chris Murphy, they're a very effective tool.  "It's a tool to make this a safer community." Murphy says.

[Mobile users view a map of the red light cameras here]

At Ann street and Highland Avenue, we had a total of 15 collisions and 0 injuries, but the next year after the red light camera was put it, it reduced down to 4 collisions and 0 injuries. But these cameras, and the tickets they issue, are uncovering some bigger problems.

Heather Mecsko got a ticket from one of Montgomery's Red light cameras in her mailbox.

"Somehow, numbers got crossed." Mecsko says. "We were surprised, too, that we had gotten a ticket, thought well maybe I ran a red light."

Mecsko then took a closer look at the pictures. She then immediately called the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Our name is listed on the ticket" Mecsko says. "We drive a Honda Odyssey, and it was clearly a Mercedes. They asked for the registration number, the tag number, and they compared it with the sticker number. It was not the correct sticker that was issued to us at renewal."

The Mecsko's renewed their tag by mail and they were supposed to get a whole new license plate. The Montgomery County Probate office had inadvertently sent out a sticker renewal, not an actual tag. They are still investigating this, and not willing to comment yet. The Mecskos have surrendered that tag, and gotten a new tag altogether. But they're still not completely satisfied.

"I'm just a little bit upset in regards to the fact that nothing was looked over at that first level." Mecsko says.

The Montgomery police department reviews hundreds of these violations every day and admits they don't always get it right

Lieutenant Stan Rucker with the Traffic Safety Division says, "Sometimes, you know, you do have human error."

Lt.  Rucker promises even if the camera catches you at a red light, it doesn't mean you'll get a ticket. So far this year the camera has captured 4300 vehicles at Montgomery intersections. Only about 4000 of them were deemed possible violations and sent to MPD. After their review, MPD only approved 3,969. About 6 percent of the images sent to American Traffic Solutions were completely thrown out.

"We check to make sure the tag matches, did the vehicle stop, did the vehicle keep going." Lt. Rucker says. "It's already got the name and the registered owner attached to it when we get it. ATS draws this information from the Alabama DMV before it gets to us."

When taking a look at this process involving ATS we've found an even bigger problem.

"The state of alabama recycled some tags years ago." LT. Rucker says. "You had some tags that were used in 1998, that were no longer in use, but when Alabama regenerated these numbers in 2014, they were coming back to the original owners in 1998."

That mistake is how Howard Ledbetter wound up with a ticket from Maryland in his mailbox.

Ledbetter says he was surprised because he had never been in the state of Maryland and never owned a Toyota pickup. Ledbetter was even more surprised after a call to the DMV.

"The lady at the DMV came back and said that it was a tag number that I had back in 01." Ledbetter says.

Bethany asked Alabama's DMV Director, Brenda Coone about the mix-up and she says yes, that's possible.

"We re-use numbers every 3rd cycle, and plates are valid for a 5 year cycle, so every 15 years, we reuse plate numbers." Director Coone says.

What Ledbetter wanted to know was how these camera people can get those tag numbers that far back.

Coone says her department gets the information daily from county probate offices, but it doesn't distribute that information directly to law enforcement.

"We send in files to ACJIC, the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, and they make it available to law enforcement."

The Alabama DMV is already aware there's a problem in the system, and Coone has written letters to help a number of people to get their tickets cleared.

"I've probably written 4 or 5 letters in the course of a couple of years because this hasn't always, to my knowledge, been an issue." Coone says.

"What I'm wanting to do is see if I can get my name taken off of any tags that are in the past that I have had."Ledbetter says.

That may not be possible, but Coone says there is at least an effort now to address the problem.

"I don't know that there's anything else the department of revenue can do. We have been working with ACJIC to try to determine what they are returning to law enforcement." Coone says.

After a week of requesting an interview with the Criminal Justice Information Center, all we received was a written statement from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which now oversees ACJIC, saying in part  "ALEA has reviewed ACJIC's policies in respect to the license plate registration information, and determined that changes were needed. Because the Department of Revenue duplicates license plates after a number of years, ALEA has now limited the number of years that will be returned to law enforcement."

The Montgomery Police Department is even considering a change in their red light ticketing process.

"Because of your reporting, we're looking at adding the local police department number, the non-emergency line, if you cannot get satisfaction, the right answer you feel like, at ATS in arizona, you can call us too." Director Murphy says.  "We understand that the Montgomery Police Department here is to protect and serve, we are public servants. We don't want to add to people's frustrations."

Officials say the first step you used take to make sure you don't get a bogus ticket is to check your information. Before you even pull out of the driveway in the morning, pull out your registration, and look in this box that says current tag number. Bring it to the back of your car, and make sure the number matches what's on your plate.

Since the DMV and ACJIC are working together to limit the information that goes to law enforcement, there's less of a need to worry about your old tags. If you get a ticket in the mail, and feel like you're not getting the help you need from the ticket issuing company, call the police department.

These red light cameras fall under MPD's Traffic Safety Division, and the Lt. Rucker says he'll be happy to talk to anyone with an issue. You can always schedule a court date, if you're still not satisfied.

Remember, unlike the tickets you get when an officer actually pulls you over, these are considered civil charges, not criminal, and they do not accrue points on your driver's license.

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