By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
Helwig F. Van Der Grinten said his vehicle is not a moneymaking opportunity for the city.
That’s why he filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Sugar Land claiming the city’s mayor, police chief and city manager are illegally using the red light cameras around the city to supplement the city budget.
Indeed, revenue from red light camera enforcement was .3 percent of the general fund when it started and has increased to .68 percent of the budget this current fiscal year.
According to the City Communications Director Patricia B. Pollicoff, “the projected revenue from red light cameras to the general fund is $571,002 for the current fiscal year. This represents 0.68 percent of the city’s $83 million general fund budget.”
The more than half a million dollars collected is the city’s allocation of 50 percent of the net revenue from the camera system after operating expenses are paid, Pollicoff said.
Per state law, Pollicoff said the revenue from red light penalties is split between the state and a special city account to fund only traffic safety programs, intersection improvements, public safety programs and traffic enforcement, including the Safe Light Sugar Land initiative.
That money should not be going into city coffers according to Van Der Grinten.
The lawsuit was filed in January on behalf of Van Der Grinten in Fort Bend County District Court by attorney Scott Stewart of Irving, claiming the city has been “Illegally fining vehicle owners for millions of dollars since 2007.”
Van Der Grinten of Sugar Land is founder of the Houston Coalition Against Red Light Cameras, an organization that successfully stopped Houston from using red light cameras. The city voted in 2010 to ban the cameras. He has filed with two other complainants who have all received fines in Sugar Land for red light violations and expects others to join in the suit.
Van Der Grinten said the city needed to respond by Tuesday (Feb. 14) but the city said only the police chief was served on Feb. 9 and they have until March to respond. Chief Doug Brinkley is expected to make a presentation to the city council March 9.
“The attorneys have taken this case on a contingency basis. The plaintiffs are not charged anything for the suit and the attorneys receive no compensation if they lose. The others member of the class action suit will be everyone who paid fines during the past two years,” said Van Der Grinten.
Some would say this is not an issue if people would stop running red lights. Van Der Grinten claims they are not scofflaws.
“People who say this believe that it is a crime to drive if you are not clairvoyant. Avoiding a red light violation is a matter of guess work,” he said.
Opponents say yellow lights give less than three seconds time and the city needs to address the traffic issue.
At issue is how the system is set up. Opponents claim the plan is illegal for multiple reasons starting with how it was established in 2007 without prior engineering studies or a civilian oversight committee.
“The contract between the city and American Traffic Solutions was signed in July 2007 to improve the safety of high volume intersections in the city and to encourage motorists to stop at red lights, which save lives,” said Pollicoff.
At the time the program was implemented, the state transportation code did not require an engineering study. Although not required, the city did conduct an independent study for the cameras at University and 90A and Eldridge.
According to the city’s website, there has been a 58 percent reduction in accidents at targeted intersections from 2009 to 2012. For example, from July 1 to June 30 there were 53 accidents from 2009 to 2010. That dropped to 22 accidents in 2011-2012, according to the Pollicoff.
Red light violators receive a ticket in the mail stating there is camera footage of them running a red light. The fine is $75, which increases to $100 for failure to pay. Not paying is seen as evidence of guilt, according to the city.
Opponents argue that the cameras do not show who is driving and the registered vehicle owner is presumed guilty. They also claim that the criminal offense should not be met with a civil offense response – paying a fine. They want their day in court to challenge the fine and question their accuser. Instead they are met with affidavits, they say, and threatened with bill collectors and possible loss of use of their vehicle by not being allowed to register their vehicles with the state.
Van Der Grinten said most people pay their fine out of fear. He said he did not pay and the city cannot hold his vehicle hostage for failing to pay a fine.
“Tell your readers that, they don’t have to pay, that will change their system,” Van Der Grinten said.
With a projected revenue of more than a half million, at $75 a pop, doesn’t that seem like a lot of people running red lights in Sugar Land?
“It represents projected revenue after expenses. That number cannot be equated to a number of violations,” Pollicoff said.
In filing the suit, the attorney wrote that he intends to show, “that the defendants have demonstrated a willingness to deceive, to avoid compliance and act contrary to law.”
The case is being pursed by Attorneys Russell J. Bowman and Scott A. Stewart. Attorney Bowman is no stranger to class action lawsuits. He had had several clients who were part of the phen fen weight loss drug class action lawsuit. This fight should be easier, he said, since no expert witnesses are needed.
“Red light cameras are unfair to the driving public. They do not reduce accidents and only raise revenue. Accidents at traffic lights are primarily cause by impaired or distracted drivers. Red light cameras do nothing to address this problem. There is a much better way to enforce the red-light law,” Van Der Grinten said.
“Have a police officer monitor in real time a bank of video cameras. When he witnesses a blatant violation, he dispatches a patrolling officer to intercept the offending vehicle and interview the driver,” he said.
“Using revenue from fines and forfeitures in lieu of taxation for financing local jurisdictions turns a police department into a revenue agency. Focus is thus diverted from the mission of serving and protecting to enforcing victimless crimes.”