BR fails to pursue red light ticket scofflaws

Got a ticket for running a red light in Baton Rouge that you forgot to pay?

Don’t worry.

The city-parish has yet to penalize a single offender for delinquent payments.

Since 2009, when the traffic light cameras took the place of police officers issuing red light violations, almost 150,000 tickets have been issued.

Of those tickets, about 59,000, or 40 percent, have not been paid.

The city-parish can enforce red-light tickets, which are civil infractions as opposed to criminal offenses, by reporting the debt to collection agencies or credit reporting agencies, suing in small claims court or immobilizing vehicles with a boot, according to a city-parish ordinance.

But John Price, an assistant chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Kip Holden, said so far the city-parish has not referred a single person to a credit agency or gone after anyone in small claims court for unpaid red-light tickets.

The city-parish doesn’t even own a vehicle boot, Price said.

The penalty for running a red light is a $117 fine, with a late charge of $35. The city-parish collects 65 percent, or 55 percent if a late notice must be filed. The remaining money goes to American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based camera vendor overseeing the program.

That means drivers owe anywhere between $6.9 million and $9 million in unpaid fines — more than half of which belongs to the city-parish.

“This administration has always maintained that the purpose of red-light cameras is to promote public safety,” Price said. “Data collected to date shows that the red light camera program has been effective in reducing injury-causing accidents at traffic signals throughout the region. Under this program, the fines assessed against those individuals running red lights are a deterrent to potential offenders.”

He added that just because people haven’t been sued or turned over to a credit agency, doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.

Every unpaid ticket is still on record and could be subject to a penalty, Price said, should the city-parish decide to pursue it.

But some critics say there’s little incentive for municipalities to spend much effort going after those who fail to pay their tickets because a certain number of those caught on camera will pay, and the cameras are always clicking away.

John Bowman, a spokesman for the National Motorists Association, which opposes the use of red-light cameras, said governments play the numbers.

“It’s an endless stream of tickets going out, and it’s not worth the time or money to go after the unpaid ones when they’ll just continue to generate new ones,” Bowman said.

ATS’s contract expires at the end of the year, so the Metro Council will have to decide in the coming months whether to extend the red-light camera program. Price said if the contract is renewed, staff will revisit options that could improve compliance.

Money collected from red- light tickets is directed toward the Baton Rouge Police Department’s budget. In recent years, the fines collected have generated between $1.5 million and $2.1 million a year. The 2013 budget projects about $1.6 million for the city-police department from the ticket revenue.

Metro Councilman Ryan Heck, who said he generally opposes the use of red-light cameras, questioned the point of using what appears to be an unenforceable program.

“It sounds like a creative way to finance the city-parish budget,” he said. “It supports my argument that this is just a cash grab.”

Other say the current system isn’t fair to those who do pay.

Lauren Parlow, 28, said she has received and paid for three red-light tickets while living in Baton Rouge. The last two tickets she received in 2011 at the Sherwood Forest Boulevard and Coursey Lane intersection came a week apart as she was driving home from work.

Parlow said she stopped and looked both ways before taking a right turn on red, but still received a ticket.

“I did pay them. At the time I thought about fighting them but it’s such an inconvenience,” she said.

Parlow said it’s unfair that the city-parish isn’t actively penalizing those who skirt paying their fines.

“I feel taken advantage of for being honest and actually paying them,” she said. “If you’re going to make a rule then you should make everyone follow it.”

Charles Territo, a spokesman for ATS, said Baton Rouge’s pay rate is normal for cities across the nation, adding that it sometimes takes years for people to pay their tickets.

ATS captures the data and mails out the tickets, but the municipalities are responsible for reviewing and approving the tickets and deciding how they will enforce payment.

Some cities and states employ a registration hold or driver’s license suspension to enforce ticket payment, Territo said. In those cities, the pay rate is above 90 percent, he said, adding that Baton Rouge could be “much more aggressive if they chose to.”

Territo also said he thought the rate of unpaid red light tickets likely was consistent with that for parking tickets issued in the city.

Parking tickets in East Baton Rouge Parish have a lower payment rate, but Lon Norris, city court administrator, said Clerk of Court’s office has begun employing new methods to enforce ticket payment.

Parking tickets, like traffic tickets, are civil infractions in East Baton Rouge.

In 2012, 51 percent of the 19,036 parking citations were paid.

The Clerk of Court’s office can withhold someone’s state tax return if they leave parking fines unpaid.

Norris has proposed in recent years that offenders with unpaid parking tickets be barred from renewing their vehicle registrations and license plates until they pay up. But he said he has deferred to the Mayor’s Office and the Parish Attorney’s Office on how to pursue his recommendation and put it into practice.

Lafayette has had a traffic camera program since 2007, and about 17,000 traffic camera tickets have not been paid over the past three years.

Lafayette city-parish officials had previously turned some unpaid tickets over to collection agencies, with limited success. But Lafayette officials are now preparing to file several lawsuits to recover the unpaid fines. The plan is to farm out cases in large batches to attorneys who will work on a contingency basis for a third of whatever money is recovered in court.

New Orleans also uses red- light cameras, and enforces ticket payment using a boot, said Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

The boot is a device that attaches to the wheel of a vehicle, rendering it immobile.

Ninety days after the initial citation is mailed out, a seizure citation is issued notifying the driver that their vehicle is eligible to be booted. If the vehicle is booted, an additional $115 is tacked onto the fine, and the boot will not be removed until that fine and any other pending violations are settled, Gamble said.

New Orleans officials did not respond to a request for data last week on the number of tickets issued and how many have gone unpaid.