Innocent Or Not, You're Paying For Red Light Tickets

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For Columbus drivers, each new day brings a new round of traffic headaches.

For the city, each day brings a new batch of $95 tickets.  More and more, the traffic cop responsible for the tickets is a camera, 10 Investigates' Paul Aker reported.

The cameras catch people in the act, blowing through red lights and turning right on red without stopping.  The numbers show the program works.  According to the city, the red lights have drastically cut down on serious crashes.

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Drivers like Al Quinn said that it has also cut down on fairness.

"I can't make a safe right turn unless I've determined there's no traffic coming," Quinn said.

A camera snapped a shot of Quinn last August.  The city claimed that he drove through a red light but Quinn denies it.  He attended a hearing but when he got there, a traffic officer told him that he had to pay a bond equal to the offense amount so he could have a hearing.

According to Columbus policy, a driver has to pay $95 to have a hearing.  If the driver does not pay, he or she loses.  If he or she pays late, the payment rises to $120 and the driver could wind up at collections. 

Reluctantly, Quinn paid the fee.  The hearing officer found that he was not guilty.

"(The hearing officer) said, 'I don't find Mr. Quinn liable for this offense,'" Quinn said.

10 Investigates wanted to know how often the policy catches innocent drivers and forces them to pay just to get a hearing.  We found plenty of cases.

In 2009, we found 60 cases.  There were 71 cases the previous year.  That is about 14 percent of the people who contest their tickets just are not guilty, Aker reported.

10 Investigates tracked down several of them and brought them to our studios.

"I feel like its highway robbery," said Janice Henry, who was found not guilty.  "It's just not fair."

Dorothy Stills said that she had to use her child support credit card to prove that she was innocent.  She said that she had no other money.

"It's totally unfair," Stills said.  "It's unfair to anyone, even if you've got a good paying job."

Even more insulting, some drivers said, is what happens after you prove you're innocent.  The city keeps your money for at least 60 to 90 days, Aker reported.

"I think the City of Columbus should be ashamed of itself," said Joshua Dressler, a nationally renowned law professor, who has authored volumes of articles and textbooks on criminal law.

According to Dressler, the system violates a fundamental concept of American justice.

"This system turns everything on its head," Dressler said.  "It basically requires a citizen to prove himself or herself innocent of the infraction and requires them to effectively pay the penalty just to get themselves into court."

The concern has sunk in with some other communities.  While we found a few Ohio cities have the upfront policy, 10 Investigates discovered other cities, like Cleveland, do not.

Toledo had a similar policy but changed it because it was considered legally questionable.

Columbus City Council President Mike Mentel was asked why he sponsored a law that required the upfront payments.

"We are assuring people show up (to court)," Mentel said.  "If they have the adequate evidence, then the money will be returned to them."

Early on, Mentel seemed to think anyone who got a ticket must be guilty.

"If you don't want to face this problem at all, don't run a red light," Mentel said.

After Aker told Mentel of cases like Stills, Mentel seemed to have a change of heart.

"Let's get it done," Mentel said.  "Let's not have a debate and talk about it.  Let's get it corrected.  Let's help this lady.  Let's help other people in her circumstance."

If Mentel follows through, he might be able to put the brakes on criticism coming from people who had to pay for their day in court.

George Speaks, the city's Deputy Public Safety Director, said that there are benefits to the system.  He said that red light tickets don't cost drivers any points against their license and there are no court costs.

Tuesday at 6 p.m., we will look at how an Ohio state senator escaped paying up front.

Stay with 10TV News and 10TV.com for additional information.