Municipalities that use cameras to capture drivers running red lights say the system is virtually foolproof, but Ronald Cea begs to differ.
Two months ago, New York City's Department of Finance mailed a notice to Cea's Rocky Point home that said a car registered to the retired Suffolk County police officer ran a red light in Queens on May 3 at 3:01 p.m. The fine was $50.
First problem: The photo of what appears to be a light-colored Lexus with a moon roof at Northern Boulevard and Marathon Parkway doesn't look like any vehicle Cea has ever owned.
Second problem: The last two numbers on the car's plate are 64, while those on the notice's payment stub read 46.
The license plate on the payment stub - identical to the tag captured by the camera except those last two digits - does match a Chevrolet Trailblazer that Cea gave his youngest son. But he registered the SUV in his own name. The elder Cea's tags were destroyed after Jan. 26 and he has the Department of Motor Vehicles document to prove it.
So Cea thought he would take advantage of a telephone number on the city's notice for those who "believe a mistake has been made."
But after 15 or 20 attempts and not getting through, Cea gave up, thinking the city would figure out that it had fingered the wrong guy. Nope, another notice arrived in the mail.
"Because you have failed to respond in a timely manner . . . " reads that notice, dated July 14, "the amount due for this violation now contains a $25 penalty."
Cea again tried to phone, he said last week, and got the same result.
"I tried at least a hundred times over several weeks," Cea said. "First thing in the morning. Just before closing. Before and after lunch. It didn't matter when I called. Nobody."
Last week, Owen Stone, a spokesman for the city's finance department, said someone preparing the notice may have transposed the two numbers. Stone said such mistakes must have happened before, but would be "very, very rare."
Nassau County said it was not aware of any similar case among the nearly 260,000 red light camera violations it has issued in the past year.
Stone said he was looking into Cea's situation and could perhaps have a judge dismiss the violation.
Cea would like that very much. He said mistakes happen, but not being able to speak with a human being to correct the problem has been "very frustrating."
"It's their mistake," he said, "and they are putting me through hell."