At least three bills filed in the Texas Legislature seek to outright ban these and similar devices or further regulate them. Gov. Greg Abbott has also recommended a ban, labeling them as costly and ineffective. He also cites issues with their constitutionality and transparency.
State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, shares the governor’s concerns. The cameras presume the vehicle owner is guilty without a proper trial, he said. Capriglione’s district covers the city of Southlake.
“It is a due process issue,” he said.
Driving in Southlake
Southlake resident Frank Allen said he supports eliminating the cameras. Allen received a violation notice in 2017. He was at an intersection in the city when he saw another car approaching behind him. Fearing a rear-end collision, Allen said he ran the red light.
“If a policeman had been standing there, they would not have given me a ticket,” he said. “They would have understood what happened. … What’s missing is context.”
Allen said he believes the red-light cameras are more about profit than safety. But Mayor Laura Hill said revenue was never part of the conversation when City Council discussed their implementation. Instead, she said, the city was grappling with increased traffic on Southlake Boulevard.
“We were desperate to get a handle on slowing the traffic down on [Southlake Boulevard],” said Hill, who was a council member in 2008 and supportive of red-light cameras at the time.
In the beginning traffic slowed. But people eventually shifted back to old habits, Hill said.
Southlake has collected a little more than $9.45 million from fiscal year 2008-09 to fiscal year 2016-17 from its red-light camera program, according to records. However, the city only retained about $1.97 million. Another $1.97 million went to the state. The remaining $5.51 million paid for services provided by Redflex Traffic Systems, according to data provided by the city. Redflex operates the cameras and is responsible for processing violation notices and collecting delinquent accounts.
In recent years the debate over red-light cameras shifted to focus more on distracted driving as well as personal privacy versus public surveillance.
Because of these changes, Hill said she would now support a potential ban on red-light cameras. But Southlake has a long-term contract with Redflex, and the city cannot end its red-light camera program unless the Legislature intervenes, she said.
Safety at intersections
At one point Southlake had six red-light cameras, but two were deactivated after some roadway improvements and construction work, Assistant Police Chief Ashleigh Casey said.
The remaining cameras can be found on Southlake Boulevard, where it intersects with Kimball Avenue, Pearson Lane, Carroll Avenue and Peytonville Avenue, according to the city website.
The city chose these intersections because of their frequent red-light violations, Casey said.
The cameras have helped law-enforcement officers monitor roadways and encourage drivers to be more mindful when driving.
They also helped former Southlake resident Chris Teape resolve a liability dispute after another car collided with his. Both drivers argued the other one ran the red light.
“The red-light camera is what ended up dictating that I did not run the red light,” Teape said. “I think in a lot of these high-traffic areas, particularly where they have a lot of accidents, I certainly think [the cameras] have their place.”
Without cameras, the Southlake Police Department would have to resort to other strategies, such as re-timing traffic signals and stationing officers at intersections to watch for violations, Casey said.
A contentious issue
Debates over red-light cameras have also reached the Texas judicial system, where multiple lawsuits are pending.
Louisiana resident James Watson received a violation notice claiming he ran a red light in Southlake. Watson said he was not the one driving, according to court documents. He paid the $75 penalty but filed a class-action lawsuit in 2015 against Southlake, 52 other cities, three red-light camera service providers and the state of Texas.
The case went to federal court before it was remanded back to state court, where Judge Susan McCoy of the 153rd District Court in Tarrant County ultimately dismissed every defendant who was not directly involved in the incident, except for Southlake and Redflex. McCoy then also dismissed Southlake based on governmental immunity.
Watson’s attorney, Russell Bowman, said the rulings have been appealed. The Fort Worth Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in November, according to filed documents.
Meanwhile the Texas Supreme Court is set to hear a similar case involving the city of Willis in Montgomery County at an unspecified later date.
Should Watson win his case, he and others like him who paid penalties for violations processed by red-light cameras could see their money refunded, said attorney Scott Stewart, who also represents Watson. It would apply to anyone who has paid these fines going back two years prior to when the lawsuit was originally filed in April 2015.
The state and cities have collected more than $327 million in net revenue from red-light cameras from Sept. 1, 2007, to Aug. 31, 2018, according documents from the Texas Comptroller’s Office. This does not include the amounts that red-light camera service providers have earned over the years.
Cities may use their share of the revenue on traffic safety programs, according to the Texas Transportation Code.
In the past, Southlake has used the funds to improve crosswalks, install additional signage, re-paint stripes for school zones and pay for lab testing in drunken-driving cases, Casey said.
If the cameras were to be deactivated, the city of Southlake would have to find other ways to pay for these types of projects, she said.
“We would still strive to make sure we’re still providing the same service levels,” Casey said. “We would just need to find different ways to manage those costs.”