It sounds straightforward enough — run a traffic light at a busy intersection and a camera snaps a photo of your license plate. The police department collects the evidence and mails you a ticket.

The reality, however, is a lot fuzzier. At what point does a violation occur? And how enforceable are tickets administered based on a camera? Gerald Siegel, an attorney who operates his own firm at 666 Plainsboro Road, says there is no easy answer to these questions. It’s all based on the speed of the road and the timing of the yellow light.

The questions arise in the wake of Lawrence Township’s recent installation of a traffic camera system at the intersection of Route 1 and Baker’s Basin-Franklin Corner Road.

The installation is part of a five-year DOT pilot program, begun in 2007, that looks to replace the need for police officers at intersections plagued by accidents and violations. This particular intersection in Lawrence has, according to published reports, been the site of more than 180 accidents since the beginning of 2010.

Siegel says that while the intention behind the traffic cameras is noble, the day-to-day workings of the system leave a lot of ambiguity. To begin with, the amount of time a light stays yellow depends on the speed limit — generally one second for every 10 mph. When a signal turns yellow, sensors in the ground register vehicles approaching the intersection, Siegel says. Then the cameras start snapping.

Depending on where you are when the camera shutter clicks will determine whether there been a violation. According to Lieutenant Charles Edgar of the Lawrenceville Police Department, the cameras will take stills and video footage once the light turns red. If a car is in the intersection, Automated Traffic Systems, the company running the cameras, will evaluate whether it is worth submitting the footage to the police. From there, Edgard says, the police will determine whether a violation warrants a ticket. If it does, a ticket will be mailed.

Whether a violation occurs, however, is not an exact science. Ray Barson, a former municipal judge in West Windsor who operates his own law firm at 194 Nassau Street, says that New Jersey law states that when a light turns yellow a driver should make every effort to stop, unless it is not safe for him to do so. If, for example, you are too close to the intersection to stop on a yellow without jamming on the brakes and causing an accident (or ending up skidding to a halt in the middle of the intersection), you are allowed to go through.

Prior to camera systems, tickets were only issued when police officers saw someone blatantly run a yellow or red light when there was ample time to stop and no dangerous, speeding traffic with which to contend.

Systems like the one in Lawrence will snap pictures of rear license plates in the intersection after the signal turns yellow. Photographing rear plates is partly due to the fact that Pennsylvania vehicles have no front plate and partly to the theory that if your rear bumper is far enough into an intersection to be captured in a photo, you ran the signal.

According to the statute, the municipality has 90 days from the date of a violation to mail the vehicle owner a ticket (which for violations at Route 1 and Franklin Corner Road/Baker’s Basin Road will be $85).

But therein lies the rub for Siegel — the fact that the vehicle owner is the one who gets the fine. If you lend your car to a friend or your son, you as the owner of the car will be the one responsible for seeing the fine paid.

Sam Sachs, a former public defender, prosecutor, and judge who operates his own law firm in East Windsor, says camera systems like the one in place in Lawrence and the one soon to be in place in East Windsor at the intersection of Dutch Neck Road and Route 130 “convict the vehicle, not the driver.” According to the law (which in New Jersey views traffic violations as quasi-criminal, rather than civil), if a police officer sees you pass a stopped school bus but cannot positively identify you, you cannot be convicted of a traffic offense.

This, Sachs says, is burden of proof and due-process. But when it comes to camera-recorded traffic violations, he says, a photo of the license plate is enough to convict the owner of the car, even if the owner is not the one driving it. “Instead of being a motor vehicle violation, it’s now a civil violation,” Sachs says. “But you’re still entitled to due process.”

Siegel cites class-action law suits in California and Missouri that have challenged the constitutionality of automatically fining the owner of a vehicle when someone else is the one breaking the law, and have questioned whether the camera systems are truly “cost-neutral.”

The theory behind cost neutrality, Siegel says, is that these systems are not supposed to affect a municipality’s revenues. But a suit in San Mateo County, California, alleges that RedFlex, the manufacturer of the camera system in place in Lawrence, reimbursed cities for monthly equipment fees when the cities did not make enough monthly revenues from camera-enforced tickets.

What also leaves too many open-ended questions for Siegel is the fact that camera-recorded traffic violations and officer-witnessed violations do not play by exactly the same rules. If you were to run a red light in front of a police officer, the ticket you would receive would add points to your license and, thereby, points on your insurance plan.

But the same violation recorded on a camera is just a fine. No points go against your license and no points go on your insurance record. “If you don’t have the full armamentarium of the law to be fully punitive when it comes to cameras,” Siegel says, then it’s just about revenue collection.

The revenue could be significant. Lawrence Township manager Richard Krawczun has stated that the system at Franklin Corner Road could generate $100,000 for the township next year.

Some municipalities in New Jersey collect several hundred thousand dollars a year from camera-recorded fines.

This is what makes Sachs say the following about traffic signal camera systems: “These are fundraisers. I don’t believe for a second that it has anything to do with safety. It’s just a way to take money out of people’s pockets.”

Sachs says the low dollar figure fine is shrewdly calculated to be insignificant enough to fight. There have, in fact, been no significant challenges to camera-generated tickets in New Jersey so far, and the reason, Sachs says, is that it’s not worth it for people to fight.

“It’s like extortion because you’re not going to fight it,” he says. To fight a ticket requires going to court, which means taking at least a half-day off from work. To fight the constitutionality of the system that sent you one requires a lawyer and thousands of dollars to get through the appeals process en route to the state Supreme Court. “And for what?” he asks. “For an $85 ticket?”

Even Sachs admits that if he were to get a ticket in the mail, he would send it back with a check. “I can’t afford to take half a day off from work to fight an $85 ticket,” he says. “It’s not worth it. If I got one, I’d probably just pay it off and be done with it.”

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