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Red-Light Camera Evidence Is Not Hearsay

For years people have challenged the use of photographs taken by red light cameras set up at intersections all across the country. By now there are 26 states that have banned the red light cameras altogether, and several other states’ high courts are currently considering cases that challenge the use of these cameras.

In California last month, the California Supreme Court decided the case of People v. Goldsmith, 59 Cal. 4th 258, 326 P.3d 239 (2014), involving a woman who ran a red light in Inglewood, California and was ticketed by a red light camera. Ms. Goldsmith challenged her citation in a trial court, where she was found guilty and fined $436. She appealed and lost, and then appealed to the state’s highest court.

Ms. Goldsmith argued that courts had previously overturned two other red light camera cases in Southern California. In those, appellate courts agreed that a testifying officer had no personal knowledge of how the automated data was collected or whether the camera was working properly at the time. In those cases, the evidence of traffic violations was thrown out.

In its 23-page decision, the California Supreme Court disagreed with Goldsmith’s primary argument that the images produced by the automated traffic enforcement system (ATES) were not admissible. The court indicated the ATES evidence was offered as substantive proof of defendant‘s violation, not as demonstrative evidence supporting the testimony of a percipient witness to her alleged violation. The court noted they have long approved the substantive use of photographs as essentially a “silent witness” to the content of the photographs.

Goldsmith’s attorneys continued to argue that the evidence against her was hearsay. But the court was clear: machine-created evidence is not hearsay. The court went on to hold the ATES-generated photographs and video introduced as substantive evidence of defendant’s infraction are not statements of a person as defined by the Evidence Code. (§§ 175, 225.) Therefore, they do not constitute hearsay as statutorily defined. (§ 1200, subd. (a). The court reasoned, therefore, that the Evidence Code does not contemplate that a machine can make a statement.

With a clear decision now on the books from the state’s Supreme Court, obtaining evidence of red light camera photographs will become more important than ever in litigation. Use of such evidence will likely increase not only in traffic or criminal proceedings, but also as admissible evidence in civil actions as well. A photograph taken by a red light camera may support a plaintiff or a defendant litigating liability in an auto accident case, especially in a “he said, she said” red light case. Of course, this could potentially make or break a case for either side. Therefore, it will become critical in these types of cases to determine whether a red light camera was present and activated on the date of the accident.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nicole Lenat is a graduate of Pepperdine University School of Law. She focuses on products liability and business litigation. Contact her at NLenat@tysonmendes.com.

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