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Fees Add Big Bucks to Red-Light Fines

By T.J. Wilham
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Until he got a phone call Wednesday, Mark Freese says he had no idea he owed the city $5,550.
    One of his cars, which he said is driven by his 17-year-old son, was caught on camera running red lights five times.
    Freese says he never received any notices in the mail and therefore never paid the fines. Over the course of 11 months he has generated $3,700 in late fees.
    If the city so desires, it could confiscate his 1999 Infiniti.
    "If I had received the first ticket, I would have addressed it with my son. And believe me, it would not have happened again," said Freese, who was told about the bill by a Journal reporter. "How do you solve something when you don't know it is a problem?"
    The city started fining people caught by traffic enforcement cameras in May 2005, but it never developed a program to collect money from people who didn't pay. It doesn't even know exactly how much money is owed, or how many people owe.
    According to police records obtained by the Journal, three other vehicle owners whose cars have repeatedly been caught on camera owe more than $5,000 in fines and late fees.
    As many as 30 others owe about $4,000.
    City officials estimate hundreds of thousands of dollars are owed by drivers caught on camera.
    Under the program, drivers are fined $100 the first time they are caught running a red light, $250 for the second violation, and $500 each for third and subsequent violations. Speeders are fined based on how fast over the speed limit the vehicle is traveling.
    Late fees— assessed after 30 days— are twice the original fine.
    Although Freese's car was photographed running a red light five times, when late fees are added, he owes in excess of $5,000.
    Tammy Adams owes $4,650.
    Someone in Adams' vehicle has been caught speeding on Menaul 12 times since August— more camera violations than any other vehicle in the city— including seven times in a single month. Adams paid one of her fines, but still owes more than $4,000, according to APD records.
    Tickets sent to Adams by APD's Arizona-based contractor, Redflex, which manages the program, came back in the mail. She no longer lived at the address.
    Police determined that Adams had moved and did not update her information with the state's Motor Vehicles Division, which vehicle owners are required to do.
    Attempts were made to reach Adams through her landlord. A phone message was not returned.
    "She has to know. She is continuously doing this, and the camera's flashes are going off," said Lt. Robert Haarhues, commander of APD's traffic camera enforcement program. "People like her are a nuisance. This is just one intersection they were caught at. Think about how they drive throughout the rest of the city."
    Police eventually found an address for Adams.
    They sent her one of her fines. When she paid, the city sent her the 11 others. She has yet to pay those.
    Freese hasn't moved in 15 years.
    His vehicles are registered to his street address in Corrales. However, he doesn't receive mail at that address— he has a post office box.
    Mail to his street address would be returned.
    "It's not fair," he said. "This is too much Big Brother."
    Of the top repeat offenders caught on camera, nearly all of them have let their fines go into default. And most were caught multiple times at the same intersection.
    Two vehicles, one owned by Evon Garcia and the other by Jordan Rager, were each caught twice on the same day, according to APD records.
    Haarhues says APD doesn't have the resources to track down everyone who doesn't pay. Since the program started, more than 86,000 citations have been issued and more than $6 million in fines has been collected.
    Nor are the resources in place to confiscate vehicles of people who don't pay, which the city can do according to its ordinance.
    City Attorney Bob White said the city is negotiating with Redflex, which would use an Ohio-based firm to act as a collecting agency. The city has signed a tentative six-month agreement that would give Redflex 25 percent of all of the fines collected by the firm.
    "It's not going to do a citizen any good not to pay these fines," White said. "There are a lot of people who think they have pulled a scam on the city, and eventually there will be a lot of money coming into the city's coffers."
    White said the city has no intention of confiscating vehicles— yet. That is a last resort, he said.
    "Our intention has been to change driving behavior, not confiscate vehicles," he said.
    City officials encourage anyone who suspects he received a citation but didn't get a fine and is worried about possible late fees to call 311.