Sunday, January 13, 2002

Attorneys prepare
for photo-ticket

Court appearances for those
contesting the photo speeding
tickets will begin Feb. 19

Photo-ticket profits spur changes

By Rod Antone

Hawaii attorneys on both sides of the photo traffic enforcement issue are gearing up for next month's first court appearances for those who received citations.

One attorney said he has taken a case that he wants to use as a "test run" for defending those cited by camera operators.

"This may turn into some sort of class-action kind of thing where we take 50 cases a day to court," said attorney Victor J. Bakke. "We're going to keep going to court, and it'll be the same thing over and over again until something gives."

Former prosecutor Michael Kam said, "If everybody who gets a citation fights it, which they should, I think the courts would be backlogged and most of the cases thrown out. So far I've had one person call me up about what to do, and I told him to go fight it." Kam now runs a private practice specializing in traffic accidents and speeding cases.

More than 300 tickets were sent to registered owners of the cars that were allegedly speeding on Jan. 3 and 4, the first two days the photo enforcement program started issuing citations.

The first court date for those wishing to challenge citations is scheduled for Feb. 19.

Jim Fulton, spokesman for the city prosecutor's office, said its attorneys are prepared to "expect a whole bunch (of challenges) in a short period of time."

Those who prosecute traffic misdemeanors said that of the total traffic citations that come to court, about 10 percent actually require a trial.

Whether challenges to photo enforcement citations will increase that percentage remains to be seen.

"Defense attorneys will probably want to challenge the fact that these tickets are being issued to registered owners of the cars instead of the person driving it at the time," said Deputy Prosecutor Sheila Nitta, Traffic Division Chief. "Also, they'll probably want to challenge the fact that machines are citing people instead of a person (writing the citation).

"It's really hard to say until we see some of the defense motions filed," she said.

The prosecutor's office has 17 deputy prosecutors assigned to the traffic misdemeanor division who already handle about 200 traffic trials a week at courtrooms in downtown, Pearl City, Waianae, Wahiawa and Kaneohe.

A photo citation for running a red light costs $77 and jumps to $102 if it is not paid within 15 days. A speeding ticket will cost $27 plus $5 for every mile over the limit. After 15 days, the base fine jumps to $52.

"The prosecutor just wants to be able to walk into court and say, 'Here judge, here's the picture, here's the readout from the camera, case closed,'" said Bakke, whose clients include a Star-Bulletin employee who has received a traffic-camera citation. "The burden is supposed to be on the prosecutors, right?

"This whole thing has turned the legal system on its head."

Bakke argued that there should have been some sort of public testing of the camera technology being used -- as with the breathalyzer technology in drunken-driving cases -- to establish it as evidence in court.

"They need someone to testify that this machine that is making this determination is being used in a proper manner," Bakke said. "Who knows what the protocol (is) for these machines, and who knows if they're following it?"

Attorney John Burge, a former Honolulu Police officer, also said questions about the reliability of the camera technology should be raised, as well as whether the operators are qualified.

"When I was using the radar gun, I checked it before I used it to tag someone, then I checked it after I tagged someone," Burge said. "Also, these camera operators are shooting from about 2,000 feet away, whereas we used to shoot from 1,000 feet away.

"The farther away you get, the greater the chance that you end up reading the speed of the guy driving next to your target instead of the target vehicle.

"Before, you had an officer who was issuing citations using common sense," Burge said. "Now you have a cold-blooded machine spitting out tickets. ... I'd try to fight it."

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