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A San Francisco traffic commissioner on Wednesday declined to sound the death knell for the camera system that’s been nabbing red-light runners in the city since 1996. Four local attorneys were trying to get citations against at least 200 clients dismissed by arguing that photos taken by unmanned cameras are inadmissible evidence. After months of deliberation, Commissioner Paul Slavit disagreed with their attack on the system’s scientific reliability, an argument that would have likely spelled doom for the city’s red-light camera program. On the other hand, Slavit sided with the defense on two other arguments that will probably lead to dismissal of some of the hundreds of cases that were consolidated before him in the traffic case, People v. Ahmad. “This is a huge victory as far as we’re concerned, because it means that the program will go on,” said Chief Attorney Loretta Giorgi of the city attorney’s office, which was deputized by the DA to handle the criminal case. San Francisco attorney Sherry Gendelman, who contends that “these camera programs are run for money, and not for safety,” said she was pleased with the two parts of Slavit’s four-pronged decision that sided with the defense. She predicts at least half of the cases involved in the consolidated case will be dismissed as a result, though Giorgi speculated it may be fewer. More than a year ago Slavit, one of two traffic commissioners, said his decision would likely guide how San Francisco’s traffic court deals with red-light camera cases. In 2002, the city handed out about 17,400 citations for running red lights, about 9,300 of them thanks to photos, city officials told The Recorder last year. Slavit found the system — which includes a camera, sensors and computer — is “generally accepted as reliable within the scientific community.” Slavit also disagreed with the defense attorneys’ argument that the camera system was being operated by a privately contracted company, rather than by a government entity as required under the state Vehicle Code. The city, Slavit wrote, “retains the necessary authority and oversight to be deemed the operator.” But the commissioner agreed that the city in some cases had failed to establish an adequate foundation to admit photos of a vehicle’s driver and license plate or declarations from vehicle owners stating that the defendant was at the wheel. If Slavit’s ruling doesn’t settle the matter, a series of civil cases around the state might, especially since they are more likely to lead to an appeal decided with a published opinion. The city attorney’s office is defending red-light cameras in one of those suits, brought by a woman who pleaded guilty to running a red light, then sued the city, state and private companies involved in the cameras’ operations. The suit was coordinated with similar civil cases in Los Angeles and San Diego counties last year.

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