Beat a Red-Light Camera Ticket in Philly

What to do when that VIOLATION envelope arrives in the mail.

According to data released by AAA Mid-Atlantic this month, 33,627 drivers were issued a ticket last year by the red-light camera at the intersection immediately south of City Hall on Broad Street. Unfortunately, I was one of them. Fortunately, I never had to cough up $100 to pay the fine.

It was sometime in mid-May when I received that loathsome envelope from the Philadelphia Parking Authority, with its infamous blue “VIOLATION” text that instantly sets off the Pavlovian response of asking “what the hell did I do?” and “how much is this going to cost me?”

To my surprise, inside the envelope was a picture of my car, mid-intersection at South Broad and Penn Square, in February—over three months earlier.

Now, I have a pair of mild moving violations on my record, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I don’t blow through red lights. Occasionally, I might be following one of those SEPTA double-bus monstrosities that obstruct my view of the traffic light, or I may choose to enter the intersection late thinking it a safer option than to slam on the brakes in bad weather. But I don’t just blow through the things.

In those scenarios, if an officer of the law—you know, one of those human beings with the capacity for rational thought and subjectivity—pulls me over and says “tough nuts” to my explanation, I respect that. But for Wall-E to send me a letter three months later and say “you did this, pay $100?” Well, that’s just not right.

So, like any upstanding citizen looking to have his day in court (and in all likelihood waste a good deal of my time and energy), I hopped on the Internet to take a look at the law: “75 Pa. C. S. § 3116. Automated red light enforcement systems in first class cities.”

What I found is that there are any number of defenses one can use to fight the ticket, built right into the code. They range from making sure the city followed proper procedure in issuing you the ticket, to protections in case you weren’t the driver.

The only slam-dunk, ethical way to get the ticket dropped is if they mailed it to you late. Check the date: Was it mailed 30 days after the violation occurred or after they discovered you were the vehicle’s owner (90 days if you’re out of state)? If that’s the case, fight that thing because the law says the ticket is no good.

However, if that’s not the case, you can still move to Plan B and bring a list of questions to your hearing. According to the law, the answers to the following questions all have to be “yes” for the ticket to be valid:

Was the ticket issued after the first 60 days of the camera’s operation?
Was the ticket issued by a Philadelphia Police Officer with primary jurisdiction over that area?
Is there a clear warning sign of the camera posted before the intersection, and if so, was it installed at least 60 days prior to when the violation occurred?
Is the yellow light at that intersection timed in accordance with the speed limit?

At this point, if you’re still out of luck and know you actually ran the light, ethics would say it’s time to take your medicine. However, if you truly believe you were treated unfairly there is a last option.

In the case of my ticket and several others I’ve seen, many of these cameras only photograph the vehicle, and not driver or passengers inside. This becomes particularly important when one reads the sections of the law, under “defenses.”

It shall be a defense … that the person named in the notice of the violation was not operating the vehicle at the time of the violation … The [city] may not require the owner of the vehicle to disclose the identity of the operator of the vehicle at the time of the violation.”

In other words, if one were to explain to the city that they were not driving the vehicle at the time, and the picture does not show that person driving the vehicle, then there’s no evidence that they did run it. What’s more, the law states the city can’t require the owner of vehicle to answer the obvious follow-up question of “well then who was?”

It also gets a little tricky, because that section of the code says that the city “may” require the owner to submit evidence of this. But if you weren’t driving the vehicle at that time, there’s a good chance you were the passenger of the person who did run the red light, or loaned the car to a family member—both are reasonable scenarios.

Now, I never had to get into that territory. Since I had recently purchased a new vehicle, it took the city three months to find that I was the owner, making the ticket invalid. However, as I sat across from the city administrator and watched his facial expression go from smug to sneer as I recited the actual law, I could tell that not many people go in armed with the proper knowledge.

Surely, there are some that will likely find this whole process of fighting a $100 ticket a little childish. And it is.

But when I triumphantly showed my dismissed PPA ticket to the guys at the Suburban Station pretzel stand after the hearing, and they recognized this accomplishment as we all cheered together, I knew I’d won one for the little guys.