California Supreme Court Upholds Red Light Camera Conviction

by Best Best & Krieger LLP

Declines to Adopt Special Authentication Rule and Finds Camera Evidence Not Hearsay

In a case briefed and argued by Best Best & Krieger LLP attorney Kira L. Klatchko, the California Supreme Court held, in a unanimous published decision, that evidence generated by an automated traffic enforcement system (ATES, otherwise known as a “red light camera”) was adequately authenticated by a police officer’s testimony and did not constitute hearsay. Agencies operating an ATES system will have little, if anything, to change in how they prosecute these cases in traffic court.

The Court’s decision in People v. Goldsmith confirms that agencies using ATES-generated evidence to prosecute red light infractions may continue to do so without adhering to heightened evidentiary requirements for admission of such evidence. The Court concluded that the standard foundational showing normally used to authenticate photographs, videos and other writings is also sufficient to authenticate ATES-generated evidence. The Court specifically rejected the argument that the testimony of an ATES technician or other witness with special expertise in ATES computers was required to authenticate ATES evidence. A law enforcement investigator from the enforcing agency has sufficient knowledge to authenticate the evidence. Furthermore, since evidence generated by an ATES is not a “statement,” the evidence does not constitute hearsay. Thus, use of such evidence does not implicate confrontation clause issues.   

The defendant in Goldsmith was cited for failing to stop at a red traffic light in the City of Inglewood. The evidence presented against her included several photographs — all imprinted with a bar code reflecting the date, time, location and how long the light was red at the time of the photo — and a 12-second video, all generated by an ATES. Only one witness testified at her trial: Dean Young, an investigator with the Inglewood Police Department assigned to the traffic division in red light camera enforcement. Young testified, among other things, that Inglewood’s ATES was operated by the Police Department but maintained by Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc., and that the computer-based digital camera system operates “independently” and records events that occur within an intersection after the light turns red. The trial court ultimately found the defendant was guilty of failing to stop at a red light, and the conviction was upheld on appeal.

The Supreme Court granted review to consider whether the trial court properly admitted the ATES evidence over the defendant’s objections of inadequate foundation and hearsay.

The Court concluded that the ATES evidence was adequately authenticated

Authentication of a writing, including photographs, is required before it can be admitted into evidence. A photograph or video is typically authenticated by showing it is a fair and accurate representation of the scene it depicts.  The Court noted that authentication may be established not only by the person who took the photograph or witnessed the event being recorded, but also by a statutory presumption (Evidence Code sections 1552 and 1553). In Goldsmith, the presumptions supported a finding that the printed versions of the ATES images and data were accurate representations of the images and data stored in the ATES.

The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that application of the presumptions violated her constitutional right to due process. The Court emphasized, however, that statutory presumptions do not alone supply all the necessary foundation for admission of ATES evidence. In Goldsmith, Young’s testimony adequately showed that the ATES photographs came from properly maintained ATES equipment located at the intersection where the defendant committed the infraction.

The Court concluded that the ATES evidence was not hearsay

The Court determined that ATES evidence does not constitute “hearsay” under the Evidence Code, as the statutory definition of “hearsay” implicates “statements” made by “persons.” ATES-generated photographs, videos and data are not statements made by persons, the Court noted. As the Legislature recently confirmed, in amending Vehicle Code section 21455.5, subdivision (e), that ATES evidence is not to be considered hearsay.

The Court’s conclusion that ATES evidence is not hearsay led the Court also to reject the defendant’s additional arguments that ATES evidence is testimonial and its admission violated her federal constitutional right to confrontation.

A copy of the Court’s decision can be found by clicking here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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