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Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but hundreds of San Francisco drivers say photos can’t prove they ran a red light. Automatic cameras used in San Francisco since 1996 to catch drivers who run red lights are under attack in a criminal case and a handful of civil cases around the state. In a consolidated criminal case before Commissioner Paul Slavit in San Francisco’s traffic court, defense attorneys argue that photos taken by the unmanned cameras are inadmissible evidence and that citations against their roughly 200 clients should be dismissed. If Slavit agrees, the city’s ability to use such photos to catch red-light runners in the future may be jeopardized. “My decision is probably going to guide how we deal with red-light traffic camera cases here in traffic court in San Francisco,” Slavit said. But the commissioner said the outcome of five pending civil suits across the state, including one in San Francisco, could have an even broader impact. “The civil cases are the ones that would have the most far-reaching effect,” Slavit said. Decisions in such suits could prevent the plaintiffs from trying to relitigate their cases in another action, Slavit said, and they would more likely lead to an appeal with a published opinion, he added. For the city, the cameras are a handy tool in nabbing red-light runners. In 2002, the city issued about 17,400 citations for running red lights, about 9,300 of them thanks to red-light camera photos, city officials said. San Francisco assesses a $341 fine for each ticket, and violators get a moving violation point on their driver’s license. S.F. solo Sherry Gendelman said she and the other defense attorneys are questioning the admissibility of the photos in their clients’ cases on three primary grounds. They contend the photos are hearsay because they can’t be properly authenticated, and the red-light camera system — which includes a camera, sensors and computer — doesn’t meet the Kelly-Frye standard, California’s test for determining the admissibility of scientific evidence. The San Francisco defense attorneys also argue the city’s red-light camera system isn’t operated by a government entity, as required under the state Vehicle Code, but by a privately contracted company. In San Diego, the latter argument was part of a successful strategy defense lawyers used to persuade a superior court judge to throw out nearly 300 red-light camera tickets in 2001, said Arthur Tait, a partner with San Diego-based Tait, Creamer & Wong who worked on that case. Deputy city attorneys, deputized by the DA to handle the San Francisco criminal case, insist in a brief the city is complying with the Vehicle Code. Even if the city weren’t in full compliance, the brief says, that should only affect the weight given to the photos, not render them inadmissible. The city attorney’s office also counters in the brief that the photos can be properly authenticated and that the technology behind the red-light cameras is reliable and accepted in the scientific community. “It is unreasonable for a defendant, assuming the registered owner is the driver captured on film, to suggest that the camera is taking a photograph of someone else or someone else’s car,” the brief says. Defense attorneys also criticize the city, in one of their motions, for rewarding a private vendor that helps run the camera system with a flat fee for each paid citation. But Diana Hammons, spokeswoman for San Francisco’s Department of Parking and Traffic, said most cities’ red-light programs include such fees. “It encourages the companies to maintain the systems and keep them operational,” she said. Slavit has almost finished hearings on defense motions to suppress the photographic evidence and to dismiss charges in the 2-year-old criminal case, People v. Iqbal Ahmad et al. The hearing on the Kelly-Frye question began late last week and was continued until mid-August. Slavit said he hopes to make his decision on the motions soon after that. Meanwhile, the city attorney’s office is also defending red-light cameras in a civil suit brought by a woman who pleaded guilty to running a red light, then later sued the city, state and private companies involved in the cameras’ operations. The case, Buys v. City and County of San Francisco, 400669, was coordinated earlier this month with four other civil cases in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Two are class actions with more than 275,000 potential members, plaintiffs attorneys in those cases said. Though the mix of defendants varies, plaintiffs in all five cases are seeking monetary damages and some change in the way local red-light camera systems are run, said Timothy Blood, a San Diego-based partner with Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach and one of the appointed class counsel. “Our goal is to try to get everyone’s money refunded, and make sure the system is run fairly in the future,” said Tait, who labels himself a “small player” in the class action led by Milberg Weiss. San Diego Superior Court Judge Linda Quinn will have broad discretion to decide whether the cases remain coordinated through trial or return to their original jurisdictions after pretrial proceedings.

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