Red-Light Cam Pictures Often Unclear

780,000 possible red-light violations tossed

By Scott Friedman
|  Friday, Apr 27, 2012  |  Updated 9:05 AM CDT
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Red-Light Cam Pictures Often Unclear

NBC 5

Many of red-light cameras in Dallas often produce murky images that can leave police unable to clearly determine whose car is in the shot.

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One click of the camera, and a ticket shows up in the mail.

But before you pay a fine for running a red light at one of the dozens of photo-enforced intersections across the Metroplex, you may want to take a closer look at the picture.

It turns out that many of red-light cameras in Dallas often produce murky images that can leave police unable to clearly determine whose car is in the shot.

In Dallas, police have even thrown out more bad pictures than they've written tickets because cameras did not provide pictures that were clear enough for police to read the license plate.

More than 780,000 possible violations have been tossed out since 2007 because police were unable to read a plate in a red-light camera photo.

During the same time period, officers issued about 554,000 red light tickets.

When Daniel Vasquez got a ticket in his mailbox, he went to the city's red-light camera website and looked at the photos. But what he saw left him scratching his head.

"I saw a car that was not mine," he said. "We drive a big 4Runner, and this was a small Toyota sedan."

Not only that, but Vasquez lives in Riverside, Calif., more than 1,000 miles from Dallas, and said he hasn't been to Texas in years.

The car in the photos has a California license plate that's similar to the plate on Vasquez's truck, but one letter in the middle of the plate in the grainy photo is unreadable.

Vasquez spent weeks trying to convince the city of Dallas the car was not his so that he would not have to pay the $75 fine.

He said his experience left him wondering if police just take a guess at the plate number if they can't read it clearly.

"I think it's just a money grab," Vasquez said. "They took a shot in the dark hoping we'll send some money to pay it off."

Dallas police insist that's not how it works. They say a contractor entered the plate information incorrectly, and that they only issue tickets when the plate number is clear.

"If we can't have a positive ID of the plate numbers and a match in the motor vehicle records, we do not issue a citation," said Mark Duebner, the Dallas police official who administers the red-light camera program.

As for the quality of the camera images, Duebner said the city is working with its contractor to make improvements. Lighting problems -- particularly at sunrise and sunset -- often make it challenging to get clear pictures.

Statistics provided by the city also show that the cameras are having a harder time reading the new Texas license plates. The numbers and letters on the new plates are flat, not stamped into the metal as they were on previous Texas plates.

More than 900 times in recent months, Dallas police have tossed out potential violations because they could not read one of the new-style plates in a red-light camera picture.

In another 5,000 cases, the city's contractor incorrectly entered a plate number into the system.

In Vasquez's case, the city ultimately dismissed his ticket, sending him a letter acknowledging that the plate can not be read.

His recommendation to other drivers: Look at the pictures if you get a ticket. It may not be what it seems.

"If the person looking at the ticket actually did their job, they'd be able to see it's not us," Vasquez said.

Clearer pictures could also mean big money for the city.

The 780,000 potential tickets that were tossed out could have amounted to more than $58 million in fines.

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