Willowbrook faces legal challenge to red-light cameras

Facts about red-light violations

• Illinois is one of 24 states that have at least one red-light camera in operation. A ticket issued by an automated camera system is treated as a civil matter rather than a criminal offense. The usual fine is $100, but this amount usually doubles if the violation remains unpaid or unanswered after 30 to 60 days. Violations are based on license plate information and are mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle in question, regardless of who was driving. Red-light camera violations, as well as speed camera violations, are typically not reported to insurance carriers or the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, and are not treated as moving violations.

• Red-light tickets generate money. With more than 300 red-light cameras in place, Chicago collected more than $69 million in 2012, the last year for which figures are available. In all, more than 70 Illinois communities use such automated enforcement. An updated list of municipalities using automated enforcement methods as of September 2014, as compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is available at http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/laws/automated_enforcement

• The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has conducted two major studies which it contends show cameras discourage motorists from running red lights. In comparing large cities with red-light cameras to those without them, the cameras reduced fatal crashes from red-light running by 24 percent, and reduced the rate of all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 17 percent.

• Vehicle owners who receive violation notices can contest them, usually by showing up in person at regularly scheduled hearings conducted by an administrative law judge or an administrative hearing officer. These individuals are usually lawyers retained by the municipality where the citation was issued. Offenders enter a plea of “liable” or “not liable” and are sworn in before giving their version of events. Appeals are rare, since the costs for filing the necessary paperwork at the circuit court level are nearly equal to the fine amount, to say nothing of attorney fees or other costs.

• Red-light camera opponents may see legal relief this fall, when the Illinois Supreme Court reconvenes. In May, justices heard oral arguments in a class-action lawsuit (Elizabeth Keating, et. al, etc. v. City of Chicago, etc., No. 116054) challenging the legality of Chicago’s red-light cameras. Plaintiffs argue the Illinois General Assembly violated the Illinois Constitution in 2006 when it voted to allow cities in just eight counties (Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, Madison, McHenry, St. Clair and Will) to adopt the use of red-light cameras.

A suburban motorist is mounting a legal challenge to Willowbrook’s red-light cameras in DuPage County Circuit Court in hopes the village will re-examine the program, if not dismantle it.

Wayne Bancroft of Downers Grove said he has decided to appeal the finding of “liable” levied against him over a pair of violations racked up by his son at 75th Street and state Route 83 in Willowbrook. Video and still photos taken at that intersection shortly before noon on May 6 appear to show a vehicle registered to Wayne Bancroft entering the intersection to complete a left turn after the left-turn arrow had changed from yellow to red. The second incident occurred around the same time of day June 11.

Bancroft, who by his own admission is “kind of stubborn,” then retained the services of Buffalo Grove resident Barnet Fagel, known as The Red Light Doctor. Fagel was batting leadoff at the Aug. 20 Red Light Enforcement Adjudication Hearing held at the Willowbrook Village Hall, as Bancroft’s case was the first one called. The once-a-month sessions allow vehicle owners cited at one of the village’s three red-light camera intersections to explain why their tickets should be dismissed.

A handful of individuals waiting to plead their cases listened closely as Fagel was sworn in by Daniel Hanlon, the administrative hearing officer retained by Willowbrook. Fagel presented paperwork showing he had been granted power of attorney by Bancroft. A subsequent video played by Hanlon clearly showed a vehicle registered to Bancroft entering the intersection and completing a left turn after the left-turn arrow had changed from yellow to red.

Fagel was unfazed. He cited sections and subsections of the Illinois Vehicle Code with ease and made an eloquent, if eventually unsuccessful, argument that the citations should be dismissed. Fagel also played his own DVD of his client’s violation video that featured a certified stopwatch timing the yellow arrow, produced with Sony professional video editing gear.

But Hanlon wasn’t buying Fagel’s main point: that the video evidence was faulty because it did not depict the entire cycle of the left turn arrow from green to yellow to red. Instead, the violation video began when the arrow was already yellow. In the video, the arrow was yellow for just 2.5 seconds, below the state and federal standards that require a minimum of three seconds. After Hanlon noted that state law doesn’t require the type of video evidence Fagel was demanding, he ruled that both tickets would stand and that payment of $100 was rightfully due to the village for each violation.

When Hanlon the called the next case, that driver came forward looking as if he had just lost his wallet.

“Well, if that man can’t win his case, I’m not going to even try,” the driver told Hanlon. “I’m guilty. Where do I go to pay?”

Willowbrook, one of about 70 Illinois communities using red-light cameras, monitors three intersections along Ill. Route 83: at 63rd Street, 75th Street, and Midway Drive. Police Chief Mark Shelton said the cameras capture somewhere between 700 and 1,000-plus drivers blowing through red lights or red left-turn arrows each month. Shelton said videotape and still photos from each incident are reviewed by one of five Willowbrook police officers, who then decide whether the evidence supports a citation. Shelton estimates violation notices are mailed to registered owners (who may not be the drivers caught on camera) in fewer than half of the cases reviewed each month.

Shelton, for one, is sold on the concept that red-light cameras are an effective tool for reducing traffic accidents.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The number of accidents has gone down significantly since the cameras were installed, and there have been no fatal accidents since then.”

Willowbrook had to make its case to the Illinois Department of Transportation before the village was allowed to install the cameras, he said, and the village is committed to fairly enforcing the results. That means giving some small degree of latitude to drivers who may not have come to a full and complete stop before completing a right turn on red, for example. Shelton said red-light cameras have made driving a safer experience in Willowbrook, and he would oppose any plan to remove them.

Although Darien does not have any red-light cameras, Darien Police Chief Ernest Brown said he supports the concept.

“Anything that changes driver habits has the potential to be good,” he said. “It speaks to driving habits that lead to accidents, particularly driving too fast for conditions and following too closely.”

Fagel, however, rejects the safety argument and contends the cameras are all about the revenue they generate.

“These cameras are municipal crack cocaine,” he said. “These villages have come to depend on the money they generate. They put the money from red-light camera fines into their budgets each year, and they talk about it openly.”

Fagel said he got involved in contesting red light camera violations about six years ago, after his son was caught on video at one of Chicago’s nearly 200 camera-equipped intersections.

“That created the first case I had,” he said. “My rights were abused and ignored, and I was incensed. It was, and is, barcode justice.”

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Facts about red-light violations

• Illinois is one of 24 states that have at least one red-light camera in operation. A ticket issued by an automated camera system is treated as a civil matter rather than a criminal offense. The usual fine is $100, but this amount usually doubles if the violation remains unpaid or unanswered after 30 to 60 days. Violations are based on license plate information and are mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle in question, regardless of who was driving. Red-light camera violations, as well as speed camera violations, are typically not reported to insurance carriers or the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, and are not treated as moving violations.

• Red-light tickets generate money. With more than 300 red-light cameras in place, Chicago collected more than $69 million in 2012, the last year for which figures are available. In all, more than 70 Illinois communities use such automated enforcement. An updated list of municipalities using automated enforcement methods as of September 2014, as compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is available at http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/laws/automated_enforcement

• The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has conducted two major studies which it contends show cameras discourage motorists from running red lights. In comparing large cities with red-light cameras to those without them, the cameras reduced fatal crashes from red-light running by 24 percent, and reduced the rate of all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 17 percent.

• Vehicle owners who receive violation notices can contest them, usually by showing up in person at regularly scheduled hearings conducted by an administrative law judge or an administrative hearing officer. These individuals are usually lawyers retained by the municipality where the citation was issued. Offenders enter a plea of “liable” or “not liable” and are sworn in before giving their version of events. Appeals are rare, since the costs for filing the necessary paperwork at the circuit court level are nearly equal to the fine amount, to say nothing of attorney fees or other costs.

• Red-light camera opponents may see legal relief this fall, when the Illinois Supreme Court reconvenes. In May, justices heard oral arguments in a class-action lawsuit (Elizabeth Keating, et. al, etc. v. City of Chicago, etc., No. 116054) challenging the legality of Chicago’s red-light cameras. Plaintiffs argue the Illinois General Assembly violated the Illinois Constitution in 2006 when it voted to allow cities in just eight counties (Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, Madison, McHenry, St. Clair and Will) to adopt the use of red-light cameras.

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