By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
The 434th District Court of Fort Bend County dismissed his case basically saying you can’t sue the city, but Helwig Van Der Grinten said that doesn’t put a stop to what he calls his pursuit of red light traffic camera justice.
“The city has deemed itself to be above accountability and unfortunately the court agrees. But we’ve got a good case and expect Sugar Land to fight it every step of the way. We will appeal all the way to the state Supreme Court,” he said.
Van Der Grinten’s lawyer, Scott Stewart, filed a class action suit in January against the City of Sugar Land claiming it is wrong to collect fines from motorists based on evidence from red light cameras at intersections, in part, because the city never conducted the required engineering studies to justify the cameras.
Van Der Grinten and others filed suit naming the City of Sugar Land, Mayor Joe R. Zimmerman, Sugar Land Police Chief Doug Brinkley and City Manager Allen Bogard as defendants.
In a July 24 hearing, presiding District Court Judge James Shoemake dismissed the case stating, “the plaintiffs have failed to allege facts sufficient to overcome defendants’ defenses of governmental and official immunity,” according to court documents.
Sugar Land Police Chief Brinkley said he still believes in the validity of the traffic light cameras.
“The systems are valid and a good way to hopefully change behavior. My focus is to do everything we can to make it safe as possible and the technology is a great way to do that,” he said.
The chief said if the higher courts eventually decide against the cameras he will abide by that as well.
“We live in a democratic society. If it’s struck down and we have no use of that technology, I’m OK with that,” he said.
Assistant City Manager Steve Griffith said there is an appeal process to dispute the red light violations.
“Each camera is leased at $5,000 a pop, which includes all the processing, downloading the images, taking them and creating files, running plates and sending them to a police officer. Every one is reviewed by a police officer and notices are mailed,” he said.
Griffith noted that there are few repeat offenders from those cited for red light violations.
“They can sign on to their computers and watch the violation. We find that by and large, most of those who run red lights watch the video and pay the $75 fine. We did the analysis and over time, 90 percent of the time, they are one-time violations,” said Griffith.
The class action attorney said he has filed similar cases across the state, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Magnolia, and Plano, and they are winding their way through the courts.
“The Texas Constitution places it in the Justice of the Peace Court. We think the law is clear and renders what they’ve done a violation. We are confident we will set aside his judgment,” Stewart said, adding that millions of dollars have been collected statewide.
James Dalton of Sugar Land is one of the people in the class action suit who paid money to the city “under duress” for an alleged red light violation.
He received notice that the city had photographic evidence of his car failing to stop at a red light at the Highway 90A and the Dairy Ashford intersection. Though he protested the ticket, Dalton paid the fine because the city threatened to withhold his registration.
“This payment is being made under duress and not being paid voluntarily. I am being threatened by a law firm you have apparently hired and I cannot afford for you to take any further action which might damage my credit,” Dalton wrote in his letter challenging the fine.
“There is no way that I can have sufficient time to challenge your lack of authority to assess this penalty or the unconstitutionality of this ticket,” Dalton wrote in his letter.
He added in his letter to the city that his payment was not an admission of liability but the reality that he could not afford to be without his vehicle while waiting for the years it would take for the matter to go through court appeals.
Red light camera opponents say it gives away the motorists right to a jury trial and there is no way to ensure the ticketed person was driving at the time of the offense. Earlier this year the Senate approved a statewide ban on red light cameras but the House did not pass it.
Chief Brinkley testified against the measure, telling the Senate Transportation Committee in Austin that accidents declined by more than half at intersections in Sugar Land where the cameras are in place.
“This is about safety,” he said.