A pilot program in which surveillance cameras were installed near traffic signals in Rochester to catch motorists running red lights has been upheld by a judge who rejected the constitutional challenges of an attorney whose vehicle was among those caught on camera.

A worker installs a red-light camera in Rochester. Photo: Annette Lein

Supreme Court Justice J. Scott Odorisi (See Profile) said attorney Lawrence Krieger could not “overcome the exceedingly strong presumption” of constitutionality attached to the 2009 law.

The law, V&T §111-b, allowed the city of Rochester to install up to 50 cameras at intersections and authorized a civil fine of $50. Under the law, the owner, whether or not he or she was driving the vehicle, is liable for the fine but can sue the actual driver for indemnification. The statute makes clear that a finding of liability does not constitute a conviction or add points to one’s drivers license.

Records show that Krieger received notice in December 2012 that a car he owns had failed to stop at the proper distance before a red light. After a hearing, he was assessed a $50 fine.

Krieger, represented by Michael Steinberg of Rochester, then challenged the constitutionality of the program, claiming it violated his substantive and procedural due process rights. He argued that the program is quasi-criminal in nature, that it improperly imposes vicarious liability and that the administrative hearing process is a sham because any defense would be meaningless.

See court papers filed by Krieger and the city, and Krieger’s reply.

Adam Clark, arguing for the city, countered that the law serves the legitimate governmental interest of promoting public safety while preserving law enforcement resources. He also denied that the law is quasi-criminal and argued that the administrative process meets all due process requirements.

Odorisi said in Krieger v. City of Rochester, 13/06121, there is no question the law was enacted for public safety purposes, but said whether it is making Rochester safer or not is irrelevant.

“The soundness of legislative intent must be assessed against the facts as known at the time the legislative body acted, not as they presently stand,” Odorisi wrote in a 27-page decision. “[P]laintiff’s protests about the usefulness of the red light program to negate the previous intent are unavailing. Rather, it is more appropriately a lobbying consideration against extending the laws past their December 1, 2014 expiration dates.”

Odorisi found the law strictly civil in nature and, consequently, subject to a lower level of due process protection.

He rejected Krieger’s privacy argument, noting that the Legislature “went to great lengths to design the red light program to be a minimal invasion” by barring photographs of the driver, passengers or contents of the vehicle.

Odorisi said the surreptitious surveillance is actually less intrusive than traditional traffic stops, where the motorist is asked to produce registration and insurance documents, and may be questioned by a police officer who has an opportunity to peer into the vehicle.

“The City’s red light camera program avoids all of this interference; thus, this Court finds the program to be much less intrusive,” Odorisi wrote.

However, in a footnote Odorisi acknowledged the potential for abuse “that sweeping changes in technology may bring, and each such alleged over-stepping will have to be assessed on its own specific facts and circumstances.” In another footnote, he recognized “the potential for negative workplace repercussions for a driver who uses his or her employer’s vehicle in the private workplace and receives a red light infraction notice.”

Steinberg said the court placed “too much reliance on federal law and not enough on the New York cases,” which are more protective of individual rights. Krieger said he will appeal.

“I can’t agree with some of Justice Odorisi’s rulings but I’m heartened by the fact that he recognized that there are real dangers in these new technologies,” Krieger said. “He was careful to limit his decision to this particular Rochester program.”

Krieger, a solo practitioner focusing on family law and general practice, declined to say whether he was driving the vehicle. He said he received a notice of liability from an out-of-state company that operates the cameras, not a law enforcement agency. He said the vehicle did not run the red light and was not in the intersection, but did stop beyond the stop line painted on the road.

“The vehicle registered to me did not blow a red light,” Krieger said. “The vehicle did not go into the intersection or past the intersection, but it did not appear to stop prior to the stop bar.”

Krieger said the program generates about $4 million annually for the city of Rochester, typically garnering fines for infractions such as failing to come to a complete stop before making an otherwise lawful right-on-red turn or, as in his case, failing to stop the proper distance before the red light. He said research showed that only a handful of motorists were caught actually running through the signal.

“These are tickets that a police officer using common sense would never issue, but the city is running a ticket machine and doesn’t apply common sense,” Krieger said.

Clark said the ruling upholds the principle that laws enacted “by the people’s representatives are presumed to be constitutionally valid.” He agreed with Odorisi that Krieger’s objections to the program are better presented to the political branches than the judiciary.

“It is an important public safety measure,” Clark said. “The judge mentioned in the decision that some of the points they raised were more political attacks than legal attacks on constitutionality, something that should be raised to the mayor or city council.”