Monday, June 16, 2008
Court Upholds Municipal Contracts for Red Light Cameras
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal Friday denied restitution to drivers who had paid fines and bail forfeitures for traffic citations caught by a red light cameras.
Affirming San Diego Superior Court Judge Linda B. Quinn’s decision in five consolidated challenges to the operation and management of the automated photo systems by private contractors, Div. One concluded that the contingency fee contracts between cities and private contractors who provide support services for the automated traffic enforcement systems were not void as against public policy.
After the Legislature enacted Vehicle Code Sec. 21455.5 authorizing municipalities to enforce red light violations through the use of automated traffic enforcement systems, several cities entered into contracts with Affiliated Computer Services Inc. and ACS State and Local Solutions to provide support services for the operation of such systems.
The private contractors’ services included installation location assistance, equipment installation, maintenance and service, and film collection and processing. The contractors also would review images to determine whether the image met the cities’ screening criteria for the issuance of citations, and obtain information on vehicle owners from the Department of Motor Vehicles to send to the cities’ police departments for approval of the issuance of a citation.
The cities paid the contractors in one of three ways: a flat monthly fee; a fee contingent on the number of citations paid per month; or a combination between a fixed and contingent fee, with the fee amount varying by citation.
The Legislature later amended the law to prohibit contingency fee agreements for automated traffic enforcement systems as of Jan. 1, 2004.
Various individuals and two classes of plaintiff filed suit against West Hollywood, San Diego, San Francisco and the private contractors, seeking a court order declaring the red light cameras and citations issued were illegal.
The plaintiffs, whose actions were consolidated in the San Diego Superior Court, argued that contingency contracts were void as against public policy, but did not confine their case to the contract terms and evidence pertinent to the formation of the contract. Instead, they presented parol evidence in an effort to demonstrate actual bias by the private contractors.
Quinn found that the evidence did not indicate the number of citations issued under the contingency fee and flat fee contracts differed, and, finding no evidence of actual bias, she concluded the contracts were valid and entered judgment in favor of defendants.
On appeal, plaintiffs claimed that Quinn had applied the wrong legal standard. They asserted that the potential for abuse, as opposed to actual abuse, was the proper standard pursuant to Wilhelm v. Rush (1937) 18 Cal.App.2d 366, which provides that a service contract is presumed valid unless “its tendency is to prevent or impede the due course of justice.”
Writing for the appellate court, Presiding Justice Judith McConnell noted that Wilhelm provided the appropriate test, but reasoned that the invited error doctrine precluded plaintiffs from arguing that the trial court had applied an incorrect standard.
At trial, plaintiff’s theory was that a showing of actual bias also demonstrated that the contracts tended to obstruct justice, McConnell explained. “If plaintiffs wanted the court’s strict adherence to the Wilhelm test, and did not want the court to consider ACS’s actual performance in determining whether the contingency fee contracts were void, they should not have submitted such evidence,” she wrote.
McConnell reasoned under the circumstances that the test of whether the contingency fee contracts actually caused the contractors to be corrupt was whether the number of citations under the contingency fee agreements and flat fee contracts differed. Thus, she concluded, the trial court had properly relied on the lack of any such evidence.
Although the contractors had a financial interest in catching as many drivers as possible, McConnell wrote, “that is not inherently sinister when the contracts gave the municipalities exclusive discretion to decide whether to issue citations and exclusive prosecutorial authority.” As a result, even under the Wilhelm test, she reasoned, the contracts were still valid.
“To the extent the judgment rests on the disputed factual matters plaintiffs raised, e.g., whether [the contractors’] actual performance of the contract showed abuse…it is supported by substantial evidence,” McConnell concluded, and “the contract terms support the judgment as a matter of law.”
Justices Cynthia Aaron and Joan Irion joined McConnell in her opinion.
The case is In re Red Light Photo Enforcement Cases, D048882.
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