I will share with you everything my research has uncovered. I want you to be armed with the knowledge and confidence you need to put up a legitimate fight against these violations. The more people who read this and pass it along to others, both in Illinois and nation-wide, the closer we can come to collectively squashing the obvious and despicable revenue enhancement scams that these cameras have become in municipalities around the country.
My experience is by no means unique. In a four month period, I have come across countless people who have fallen victim to these cameras. Some are confused, some are afraid to fight the system, and many are angry. But few know how to best handle these violations when they occur. Numerous people, both wealthy and otherwise, have said to me, “I just paid the money.” Hopefully after reading this, you will realize that that putting up a fight by choosing to contest the ticket IN PERSON is worth your time and effort. Every time.
When my wife called me at work to inform me that I had received a $100 dollar right-on-red moving violation ticket in the mail, my first thought was “I must have deserved it.” This is the initial reaction of most people, I think, as it is natural to assume that:
1.) We all make mistakes as drivers (especially me), and
2.) If a local municipality is going to go through the trouble and cost of setting up a red light camera system, there must be a legitimate reason, and the system must be iron-clad and indisputable.
Sadly, only the first point is true.
I got home and looked at the notice. It showed several photos of my violation, and gave me a Web site address and a ticket number to view an online video of my infraction.
In the spirit of a responsible news station reporting third world carnage, I must warn you to brace yourself – the images you are about to see are disturbing (my car is the minivan that enters at the 6-second mark):
I looked at my wife. She looked at me. We scratched our heads. We viewed the video again.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
With each successive viewing of the video, I got angrier. I was not about to give Berwyn $100 for THAT. No way.
As I tried to figure out my options, I first made a call to my father, a lawyer. My dad has often told me that the Law is merely a trade, and that the weaponry of that trade is, quite simply, information.
“Go online,” he said. “Start poking around. You might be surprised by what you find.”
And as usual, he was right.
I returned to the intersection. I took pictures. I made measurements. I e-mailed pit bull investigative reporter Pam Zekman, who ignored me, only because she must have received countless other e-mails on this subject, given her recent report mentioning this very corner, which apparently pulled in over $800,000 last year.
I studied the inconspicuous, wordy sign that I am still convinced does not quite comply with the federally issued Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). (I'd get into details, but the class-action suit I tried to make happen revolved around this point, and it's best to stay mum on it).
Anyone could drive past that sign 100 times and not notice it. One can only assume that is precisely what Berwyn intended. Cha-ching.
The sign has since been "upgraded" a bit, but at the time I went to see it, it was in disrepair (as in upside-down). I wonder if Berwyn continued to attempt to collect money from drivers while the sign was in this condition...I'd bet $100 that they did.
While I was out in the snow enjoying the upside-down sign, I measured the distance between the sign and the line where Berwyn tells you to stop – 17 feet. That’s right – there’s a line, and then 17 feet later, there’s a sign telling you to stop at it. Imagine a bedtime story that begins “Happily ever after,” and ends with “Once upon a time.” Is that a story you would understand? Of course not. But Berwyn is fine telling the story this way, because every time you don’t understand, it’s another 100 dollars for them. Cha-ching.
And Berwyn has, in fact, gone to great lengths to see to it that the “100 dollar gotcha line” is as far in front of the sign as possible, thereby maximizing their profit potential. Below are the two corners of this same intersection that belong to Berwyn’s neighbor – the town of North Riverside (P.S., North Riverside has its own cameras, but not at this particular intersection, so I will use it as an example if only because I don't want to traverse the entire state seeking examples). These right-hand lanes are clearly marked, and note that despite the need to accommodate crosswalks, these lines are still somewhat even with the lines of the main intersection.
Note how Berwyn’s right hand lane line is set back from the main intersection, despite there being no crosswalk at all:
From any logical standpoint, this corner appears to be specifically designed to cause drivers to commit an infraction. At the same time, it adds no obvious safety element to the corner, given that the only place it is important for a driver to stop is further forward, where one merges with oncoming traffic. This, incidentally, is where I stopped, as shown in the video.
Now, as a fan of TV shows like Law and Order, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Law and Order: Traffic Court, CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, and CSI: Tuscaloosa, it’s about this time where I begin imagining my unwavering, valiant performance in traffic court, challenging the pillars of Berwyn’s traffic administration community that their red-light camera has absolutely nothing to do with safety:
Me (massive, Sam Waterston-like eyebrows furrowing): “So you are telling me that at a busy intersection, there is a legitimate safety concern to making cars come to a complete stop that far away from where they actually merge?”
Generic Berwyn Judge: “Yes.”
Me: “Then allow me to show you the fourth corner of this intersection, Your Honor.”
What’s the big deal about the fourth corner, you ask? This corner of the intersection, the northeast corner, happens to be the only other corner of this intersection belonging to Berwyn.
You’ll notice that here, there is NO line whatsoever, even though motorists encounter the same supposedly perilous merge onto the equally busy Harlem Avenue, but are allowed to float through with nary a stop sign. So why is this situation allowed to occur on this virtually identical Berwyn corner not 40 feet away? You know why, and I know why. Because there is no camera set up there to take your picture and collect $100 dollars from us when we pass. Cha-Ching.
Of course, part of my effort involved Googling like crazy (I advise against Googling more than three times a day, as this can often result in chafing, or a rash – but that is a discussion for another time).
My Internet efforts uncovered the following tidbits:
- This particular red light camera was opposed by two of the eight Berwyn aldermen, one of whom vocally called out their “gotcha” nature. I called both aldermen multiple times. Neither returned my calls. This article further states that Berwyn's very own Director of Public Works said that: “Although the devices do generate revenue for the city, state law prohibits municipalities from installing them simply as a source of income. There must be a legitimate safety concern.”
- I learned from this article that Berwyn police said that a whopping one traffic accident has occurred within the intersection of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road since June 2008 prior to the camera installation – a staggering statistic. Perhaps it’s time for New York to build a landing strip atop the Hudson River, given that Sully Sullenberger was once forced to land a plane there.
- I learned from this article that the existence of these cameras has absolutely nothing to do with safety and everything to do with politics and revenue, partly due to the aggressive lobbying of a UK-Israeli traffic camera maker called RedSpeed, whose executives include various former Illinois officials.
- From this article, I learned that even people within the community that “benefits” from this added revenue are suffering and livid about what their own community is doing.
If you get a ticket, you should print and review Public Act 096-1016. This state law is now in effect (and has been "official" in its entirety starting in January of 2011). The only wrinkle? (there's always a wrinkle, isn't there?): Illinois counties are not obligated to force municipalities to fully adhere to these laws by a specific date. These are, in essence, "guidelines," as was told to me by a rep for Senator Cullerton's office.
That's right, folks. As a result of endless, venomous complaints by rightfully ticked-off residents, state laws have been put in place to counter the very type of institutionalized robbery that Berwyn is performing - and yet there is no particular law about precisely when that law needs to be fully and formally enforced...Perhaps we should start treating murderers and rapists the same way. "You, Mr. Smith, have been convicted and will go to jail...well...go home and we'll put you in jail at some point...the jailing is really more of a guideline than a rule."
...Hey, we're the state of Abe Lincoln, but we're also the state of Al Capone.
Still, by all accounts, Public Act 096-1016 is technically the law, and you should print it out and have it with you in traffic court. Here are my favorite parts:
1.) Section 5, part B, Number 3:
…In all municipalities and counties, the automated traffic law ordinance shall require that no additional fee shall be charged to the alleged violator for exercising his or her right to an administrative hearing, and persons shall be given at least 25 days following an administrative hearing to pay any civil penalty imposed by a finding…
This means you can dispute the charges without fear of being charged additional money for doing so. Communities have charged such fees to people fighting these tickets. By state law, no municipality can do this. Also note that after any finding that you are liable, it is your right to have at least 25 days from that point to pay. But bring your checkbook just to be safe.
2.) 625 ILCS 5/11-208.6, B-5:
…A municipality or county that produces a recorded image of a motor vehicle's violation of a provision of this Code or a local ordinance must make the recorded images of a violation accessible to the alleged violator by providing the alleged violator with a website address, accessible through the Internet…
This means there must be a Web site where you can see images / videos of the alleged violation.
3.) 625 ILCS 5/11-208.6, C:
A county or municipality, including a home rule county or municipality, may not use an automated traffic law enforcement system to provide recorded images of a motor vehicle for the purpose of recording its speed. The regulation of the use of automated traffic law enforcement systems to record vehicle speeds is an exclusive power and function of the State.
Hear that? No town can fine you based on vehicle speed....I mean, no town outside of the fascist, post-apocalyptic Thunderdome of Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, it appears ...remember what I said about guidelines? That's right, Rahm wants to put up speed cameras in school zones throughout the city. And of course, one of Emanuel's major campaign contributors is a consultant for RedFlex, an automated speed camera manufacturer . RedFlex, RedSpeed...what's with the "Red" this and "Red" that? Are these companies all communist?
Oh, maybe I'm just being cynical. I'm sure if the financial beneficiary of Rahm's red light cameras were, say, Mitt Romney or George Dubyah, he would still be just as concerned about the "safety of our city's children." As per the article noted above, Emanuel campaigned on a pledge to change a culture where government is "an insider's game, serving primarily the lobbyists and well-connected." Good to see he's following through on such talk.
Well, Rahm Emanuel's phoniness aside, have this state law in your possession if you fight an unjust city-enforced speed trap - as I highly recommend you do - and let me know how it turns out for future reports.
4.) 625 ILCS 5/11-208.6, C-5:
A county or municipality, including a home rule county or municipality, may not use an automated traffic law enforcement system to issue violations in instances where the motor vehicle comes to a complete stop and does not enter the intersection… during the cycle of the red signal indication unless one or more pedestrians or bicyclists are present, even if the motor vehicle stops at a point past a stop line or crosswalk where a driver is required to stop…
This is a very important point. Towns like Berwyn can no longer paint an arbitrary line and force you to stop there. However, you must come to a complete stop before formally entering the intersection. So if while taking a right on red you notice a PHOTO ENFORCED sign, don’t ever assume it’s too late. Hit the brakes and stop (hopefully avoiding a rear-end collision with the person behind you), take a breath, and proceed. By making a “complete stop,” you are in the best position to avoid and / or fight a fine.
The Berwyn Web site currently offers a "driver's ed" suggestion for coming to a complete stop: “A good rule of thumb is that once you come to a complete stop, is to wait three (3) seconds by counting…one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three.”
This student-driving school advice is a positively perfect way for the Berwyn PD to give you the impression that they want to keep you safe and free of their unjust $100 fines, while simultaneously giving the impression to existing offenders that a full three second stop is necessary to win in traffic court (which is, as I have found, not true). More offenders would then, of course, be less likely to bother trying to contest the ticket. Brilliant. Devious, but brilliant.
5.) Part K-7 – A municipality or county operating an automated traffic law enforcement system shall conduct a statistical analysis to assess the safety impact of each automated traffic analysis to assess the safety impact of each automated traffic analysis to assess the safety impact of each automated traffic and shall cover a period of time before and after installation of the system sufficient to provide a statistically valid comparison of safety impact.
This particular edict is perhaps the most amusing of all laws, given Berwyn's comical, almost mocking, response to it. From the Berwyn Web site as of March 17, 2012:
Why has the City of Berwyn decided to implement an Automated Red Light Photo Enforcement Program?
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, nearly 2 million crashes occur each year at intersections. In 2005, red light running resulted in 800 fatalities and over 165,000 injuries. It is the City of Berwyn’s belief that implementation of an Automated Red Light Photo Enforcement Program will reduce the number of red light collisions and injuries associated with such crashes. The goal of this program is to increase traffic safety in the City of Berwyn by reducing red light running violations, red light crashes and red light injury crashes without impacting city funds.
1.) Berwyn's red light cameras have potentially added collisions (numbers not yet available) because drivers who approach this intersection are now, as I have witnessed in person, either coming to a screeching halt when the light turn red, or stopping some 50 feet away from red lights in an effort to avoid getting these tickets.
The unnatural driving behavior now being performed by drivers aware of the "cash corner" are, as you would expect, co-mingling with those unaware of it, and I submit that this elevates the potential for accidents.
If you have been in an accident that you believe was caused by one of these cameras, let a lawyer, and me, know about it.
2.) How obscene is it that Berwyn has the nerve to tack on the phrase "without impacting city funds" when their corner nets them over $800,000 annually?
Jury Duty vs. Traffic Court:
When I received a notice for jury duty at the Rolling Meadows, IL, courthouse, and realized that my appearance in Berwyn’s traffic court was scheduled for the following day, I figured I was golden. Instead of trying to cook up reasons why I could not be an impartial member of the jury, I could simply say to the Judge: “I’m due in traffic court tomorrow.”
And that’s exactly what I did.
But foiling my plan, the Judge looked at me and calmly said: “I’ll take care of it.”
After reluctantly being selected for a two-day trail, I called the phone number on my ticket and explained to a clerk that I would be unable to attend traffic court because of jury duty.
“We don’t reschedule hearings,” the clerk said. “If you don’t appear, you’ll be deemed liable and the fine will stand.”
“But it’s jury duty,” I said. “It is my civic obligation to be here.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
Think about the arrogance at play here - every American employer is legally bound to respect the obligation of jury duty, no matter how involved that obligation becomes. The town of Berwyn, however, has decided it is exempt from such triviality. Just because they punish people by the "letter of the law" doesn’t mean they have to adhere to it, right? Besides, flexibility and convenience for you could mean less money for them. So in that respect, I guess it makes perfect sense.
I was livid. I told the clerk this is unacceptable and hung up.
If you’ve ever been to jury duty, flagging down the judge in the midst of a structured trial setting is no easy task. But that’s just what I did. I handed him the notice on the way out of the courtroom and said “Berwyn won’t reschedule.” The judge had told me the day before he would handle it, so I decided to hold him to his word. Besides, I wanted my day in traffic court, if for no other reason than to have a satisfactory conclusion to my story.
In the courtroom later that morning, the judge told me: “I’ve been having about as much luck as you getting things rescheduled. I have a call in to the Village Attorney.”
Finally, at a lunch break later that day, a Bailiff entered the jury room and handed me a piece of the Judge’s stationary with a rescheduled date and time, and said to me: “They kept the Judge on hold for ten minutes.”
Berwyn kept a Third Municipal District Circuit Court Judge on hold for ten minutes – over a traffic court hearing. That’s the depth of the bureaucratic chicanery ingrained in the Berwyn system. For shame, Berwyn. For shame.
The first amusing thing about going to traffic court at Berwyn’s police department is the parking situation outside the building. Lining the various side streets of the surrounding neighborhood are signs about as small, complicated, and restrictive as any I have ever seen:
Inside the building, I asked an officer if I would get a ticket for parking on the street.
“No,” he said. “They won’t ticket you if you’re in court.”
“How do they know I’m in court?” I said.
“Because it’s court day,” he said.
In other words, while you’re visiting Berwyn to hand over your hard-earned money, they will refrain from adding insult to injury with a parking ticket. Mighty kind of you, Berwyn.
The large, bright courtroom was set up with enough folding chairs to accommodate a G7 summit meeting. The room was about half full with discontented folks, all holding the same ticket as I had received in the mail. The make-up of the group appeared to be a mix of economic classes, but most of the people, if only because they were in attendance, looked like they couldn’t afford to shell out $100 for a red light violation.
And that, frankly, was the most tragic and depressing part of the scene to me. I could afford the 100 bucks, but what about everyone else? Oh sure, at first my crusade was about keeping my own money, but over time, as I realized how many people less fortunate than I were being screwed out of their hard-earned money, the situation became bigger than me. There is something truly despicable about institutionalized robbery, and the scene in this courtroom confirmed it.
The judge was a dapper, older man with slicked back, white hair and a blue suit. His pleasant, easy demeanor made me think of Hannibal Lecter, ready to greet you with a coy grin and a snifter of brandy before eating your face for dinner.
The bailiffs – who had a collective I-wonder-how-much-longer-we’ll-be-allowed-get-away-with-this looks on their faces – called a group of names at a time, summoning the chosen to line up against a wall. Each defendant would then, one by one, approach the bench to view a video monitor. The judge had his own monitor, and both would watch the video together.
The most telling part of the procedure is that both monitors face away from the audience, so that the rest of the disenchanted public have no idea what is being seen. As I said before, information is power.
I was not encouraged by how things began. The judge would lean over person after person and politely tell them, “I’m sorry, you didn’t stop.” Some of the defendants did not speak English, so one of the bailiffs would have to translate the “I’m sorry, you didn’t stop” into Spanish.
Some people had to watch two or three videos, because they had received several identical tickets for this intersection. That’s right – in its stalwart desire to enforce stringent traffic safety practices, Berwyn allows a month (the maximum legal time) to pass before issuing the ticket, giving locals ample opportunity to perform the same "unsafe" misstep time-and-time again before ever receiving notification that they have done anything wrong.
Stay classy, Berwyn.
The whole event was truly a pathetic display, made no better by the Judge frequently telling defendants to follow the rules next time because “We don’t want to see you here again.” Of course, if that sentiment were true, Berwyn would simply abolish their red light cameras.
A couple of people left the courtroom yelling their discontent, which fired me up. My initial nervousness was replaced by a desire to unload a torrent of frustration and drop all of the knowledge I had gained in the months I was waiting to be heard.
But then, inexplicably, the mood of the room lightened. Several defendants in a row received “the benefit of the doubt,” indicating that the Judge was, perhaps, a reasonable person willing to be lenient on a close call when it came to a “complete stop.”
It was then that my wife’s words ran through my head: “Say as little as possible. The less you say, the more in control of the situation you are.” Indeed, several of the people who quietly watched the video and then looked to the Judge for his guidance received the “Benefit of the Doubt.” Now, don’t get me wrong, silence won’t work if you blew through an intersection, but it will give you the best shot in the case of a close call.
So even as I had a folder full of intersection photos, federal sign regulations, and state laws, I decided I would simply begin with silence. If the Judge told me I was guilty, only then would I unleash.
But it never came to that.
We watched in silence, and he looked to me.
“I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt,” he declared, and I was actually a little disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to uncork my mountain of information onto his desk.
Then he added something.
“But you didn’t stop at the line,” he said. “I don’t judge whether people stop at the line, I just judge whether a complete stop was made.”
You remember the line…that line that Berwyn drew 17 feet in front of the sign, the line that state law now says should not be enforced by any municipality. Of course, at that very moment, my folder of information contained a printout of that law, and oh, how I wanted to whip it out.
But I decided against it. I had won, and it was time to be quiet. Oh sure, I muttered a mouse-squeak of a rebuttal… “but …isn’t the…law…that the line …doesn’t matter?”
“Well, if that’s what you think, then you’ll be back here again,” he said.
And with that statement disappeared whatever goodwill and wisdom I thought might have dwelled in the breast of that old Berwyn judge. You see, he either:
- Doesn’t know the law (unlikely), or
- Knows the law quite well, and is now merely pretending that his decisions are founded in goodwill instead of state law (more likely), or
- Knows the law quite well, knows that proper enforcement of the law is still mired in a bumbling, crooked, gray area that neither the state of Illinois nor Cook County has yet to find a way to properly and clearly enforce, and therefore he can make whatever assertions he wants to his "victims" just because he can (most likely)
After walking out of the courtroom, I offered a hearty fist pump and a “yeeaaah!” to the portly officer stationed by the metal detectors. I did not bother to look over my shoulder to register his response.
I walked out of the building to a glorious day in the midst of one of the mildest Chicago winters I have ever remembered. Concerns over global warming would have to wait for now. Today was a good day. Today I didn’t have to give my money to Berwyn.
Today, I had won.
The “Jerry Springer” Final Word:
We all know these are tough economic times. But that does not give municipalities license to extort money from individual residents. Times are just as tough for individuals, and taking their money the devious way countless Chicago-area communities are choosing to take it is unconscionable and unethical.
While I have focused on Berwyn because that is my experience, this is going on in communities all over Chicagoland, and all over the country. I welcome you to share with me your experience, because as I said, information is power.
Practical things that you can (and should) do:
1.) Unless you were completely, utterly in the wrong, ALWAYS appear in person to contest these tickets. I know it can be difficult. Many people cannot afford to take time off work. From what I observed, however, at least a third, maybe more, of these tickets were given the “benefit of the doubt.” You saw my video. That received the benefit of the doubt.
Remember, your video is initially reviewed by a police officer and an adjudicator, both of whom will always render all close calls as “liable.” But a judge, in a courtroom, with a defendant standing before him, is more likely to be even-handed. You want to go to court and make a human being look you in the eyes and tell you that what you did was wrong.
If 1,000 people a month get these tickets, 1,000 people should ideally show up to the monthly court date to contest them. And “I can afford to pay” is no excuse to just send a check. This is about the common good, about everyone’s money, and about what is just. The system as it currently stands is unjust to its core.
2.) Your presence at the voting box is as important as your presence in court. Do not vote for legislators who do not take a firm stand against these red-light cameras. And vote out those willing to allow them. Any legislator who allows these cameras to exist for their current purposes is not interested in the well-being of their constituents, and should be fired. Cities and towns need to find better ways to enhance revenue. Force them to think harder.
More specifically, to Berwyn I say that you have two Alderpeople who voted against red light cameras in your community - Third Ward Alderman Marge Paul and Fourth Ward Alderman Michele Skryd. Remember that at the ballot box. Everyone else can go.
To Chicago I say the same about Rahm Emanuel.
Let's bring this state back toward the Abe Lincoln way of doing things, and vote down the Al Capone way.
3.) Join my mailing list. Send me a mail with “red light cameras” in the subject line. Tell me your stories. Let me know if any of the information I have provided helped you. As I said, information is power.
I want to give municipalities a reason think twice about adding, or keeping, these red-light cameras for their current purposes. The more information I can collect, the better. Hopefully, getting back my own money was just the beginning.
Good luck, and remember to look the judge straight in the eye.
Click here for the latest in Berwyn's financial pillaging.