A former Nassau County District Court judge is seeing red over two $50 fines his wife received when she was caught on camera last October passing through an intersection in Oceanside on her way to doctors' appointments.
Samuel Levine said Nassau's red-light camera system, which photographs a car's license plate as the car passes through a traffic light after it has turned red, is unconstitutional because every defendant has a right to confront his accuser, and in this case the "accuser" is a camera maintained by an out-of-state company.
"You can't cross-examine a photo," said Levine, of Long Beach. He is challenging the fines because he is the owner of the car. Levine, 81, is due in court Wednesday to try and get a hearing on the fines postponed until a judge has time to consider the legality of the cameras.
His wife, Lee, said she does not dispute the camera evidence, but added that the yellow light at Long Beach Road and Daly Boulevard in Oceanside was unusually short - about 4.1 seconds, she said. She said she was afraid to stop suddenly to avoid the red light and thus crossed the intersection. Lee Levine, 79, said she was driving to doctor's appointments when she got the violations on Oct. 19 and Oct. 29.
Samuel Levine is no stranger to legal challenges. Records show he filed two lawsuits last year after he said he was unfairly denied a position as a Nassau traffic court judge, both on the grounds that the county executive does not have the authority to appoint traffic court judges. He also filed a federal suit in 2003 against the county and state administrative judges, claiming he was denied an appointment as a judicial hearing officer because of political differences. Those suits were not successful.
Nassau began installing red-light cameras in spring 2009, after Gov. David A. Paterson signed two bills authorizing red-light cameras at 50 dangerous intersections each in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Suffolk installed cameras at its first intersection on July 15 at Exit 59, Ocean Avenue off the Long Island Expressway, a spokesman said. Nassau has installed its cameras at about 30 intersections.
Roy Lucke, research director at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety, said he believes governments around the country have had red-light cameras installed at intersections with the greatest traffic volume rather than the highest incidence of crashes. Also, he said, jurisdictions have reduced display time for yellow lights after the cameras are in place.
Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli said the cameras are perfectly legal. And he said a 4.1-second yellow light is well within the state standard. He said the photos, which show a photo of the intersection, the car and the light, would be nearly impossible to disprove. What's more, Ciampoli said the red-light camera violations do not affect the car owner's driving record or insurance assessment. "It's essentially an administrative proceeding," he said.
Nassau officials say yellow-light times have not been changed.
Marc Gann, a criminal defense lawyer and president of the Nassau County Bar Association, said Levine's argument could hold water. "It seems to me that there is a viable argument there if no one is testifying as to the authenticity of the document," said Gann, of Carle Place.
But Jim Cohen, a professor at Fordham Law School, said the fact that it is an administrative proceeding, not a criminal or quasi-criminal one like other traffic tickets, makes it harder for someone like Levine to challenge the evidence.
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How red light cameras work
Two sensors are placed in the road. When the traffic signal turns red, the sensors detect a vehicle in the roadway by its speed.
The sensor will then detect whether the motorist started through the intersection when the light was already red. If it did not, it will not trip the camera.
The pictures are then sent to Arizona, to the contractor who handles this service for the county. They are reviewed, and some are discarded. The rest are sent back to county traffic officials for further review, and many times additional ones will be discarded before citations are sent out to the registered owner of the car.