Fort Worth

Could this lead to the end of red light cameras in Texas?

Signs warning drivers that there are red light cameras ahead are spread throughout Tarrant County and the state.
Signs warning drivers that there are red light cameras ahead are spread throughout Tarrant County and the state. Star-Telegram

James H. Watson was frustrated.

Like anyone else, the last thing the Shreveport man wanted to see in his mail was a ticket for running a red light.

Yet there it was, a ticket for running a red light in Southlake.

The only problem was that he said he wasn't in Southlake — and he did not "knowingly permit whoever was operating" the 2009 Honda to be there.

But he received a $75 ticket in the mail, which indicated a $25 late fee would be added if he didn’t pay in a timely manner. And if the bill wasn't paid, it could be sent to a collection agency or used to prevent him from renewing his car registration.

“Faced with the threat of damage to his credit or the loss of the right to renew his vehicle registration, (he) paid the $75 penalty ... under coercion or duress,” according to a lawsuit Watson filed.

Watson's lawsuit was filed three years ago this month.

“When this started out, it was to get my $75 back,” Watson, 67, told the Star-Telegram this week, adding that he "wanted to end the cameras” in Texas.

“I didn’t think (the red light camera tickets) were legal or right."

This case, which could ultimately determine whether the red light cameras stay on — or are turned off — in Texas, is winding its way through the legal system after being sent through the years to different courts and having various pieces chipped off or dismissed.

American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the leading road safety camera provider in North America, wants drivers to see this year’s compilation of the worst red-light running crash videos and realize they are too dangerous to ignore.

A recent ruling dropped dozens of cities from the lawsuit, but Watson's attorney says it will be appealed.

“I’m just waiting to see what happens,” Watson said. “I’m hoping for the best.”

The cameras are set so vehicles entering intersections after the light has turned red — and those that don’t pause long enough before turning right on a red light — are photographed.

Vehicles entering the intersection on yellow that are still in the intersection when the light turns red are not photographed, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

After each offense, a $75 ticket is automatically sent to the car’s owner.

Petition drive

As the lawsuit continues, a group of residents is working to gather signatures on petitions asking the city of Fort Worth to turn off the red light cameras.

A similar effort was successful in Arlington in 2015, when petitions forced city leaders to put the issue on the ballot and nearly 60 percent of residents voted to ban the red light cameras.

“It is a blatant constitutional violation,” Kelly Canon, who led the Arlington effort, has said. “These cameras cannot prove you were the one driving the car at the time of the infraction. They can only take a picture and send it to the owner of the car.”

Volunteers are trying to gather 20,000 or more signatures on petitions to persuade Fort Worth City Council members to put the issue on the November ballot and let voters decide whether to keep the cameras that have been up since 2008. They plan to be at upcoming events such as Mayfest and the Main Street Arts Festival.

Three dozen states allow the cameras, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Pay up?

As the lawsuit and petition drive move forward, some wonder whether they have to pay these red light tickets.

Officials note that the tickets are civil violations, not criminal, which means they don’t show up on driving records or impact insurance rates. And they can’t be reported to credit bureaus, so they don’t impact any credit records.

But some Texas counties, such as Dallas, flag motorists with unpaid red light tickets and block their vehicle registration until the fines are paid. Tarrant County does not block vehicle registration for unpaid red light camera fines.

Proposals to end the practice of using red light cameras in Texas have gone before the Texas Legislature in recent years, but lawmakers have yet to pass any such measure.

Gov. Greg Abbott has said he supports letting cities decide whether they should have red light cameras.

The lawsuit

Watson's 70-page lawsuit was filed in Tarrant County in 2015 against 53 cities and several companies that operate the cameras.

A recent ruling dismissed red light camera claims against 52 cities in Texas, including Fort Worth, Dallas, Irving and Corpus Christi.

"We will appeal," said Russell Bowman, Watson's attorney in Irving.

He and others say this case could stay in the courts for years. But in the end, he thinks they will win.

"We wouldn't have filed any of this without looking at it and knowing we have a case," Bowman said. "(Recent legal rulings) have absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case whatsoever.

"It's solely on procedural manner."

Fort Worth attorney George Staples, who represents about half of the cities originally named in the lawsuit, also believes this lawsuit is nowhere close to being finished.

"They like their chances," he said. "Frankly, I like the cities' chances. But it ultimately will be decided by the Texas Supreme Court."

As it stands now, “the red light camera law essentially has been upheld,” he said.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley
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