Lawyer Regina Quick, defending two clients from charges that they were photographed running red lights, subpoenaed five traffic cameras at the West Broad Street-Alps Road intersection to testify that her clients did indeed barge through on red.
"I didn't observe them as they came in, so I don't believe they'll be appearing," Quick said.
Jim Davis, the assistant county attorney who prosecuted the cases, said Quick should have subpoenaed county officials to produce the cameras if she needed them to make her case.
"It's not proper to serve an inanimate object, such as a camera," Davis said.
Municipal Court Judge Kay Giese found the defendants not guilty because Athens-Clarke County failed to produce any evidence that they are the registered owners of the cars caught on film illegally turning left on red, she said - not because the cameras did not come to court.
But Quick's tactic spoke to what many people loathe about red-light cameras: That they can essentially be ticketed by a machine, not a human being. The cameras snap a picture of a car's license plate when it runs a red light, then a citation is mailed to the car's registered owner.
Usually, the only way for the owner to get out of the ticket is to sign a legal document stating that he or she wasn't driving the car and naming who was. The tickets are not a criminal offense, so they are tried under different rules than most crimes.
Quick questioned a police lieutenant who signed off on the citations mailed to her client and a civilian technician who printed and mailed the images, both of whom said they do not know how the technology works. Therefore, she said, the cameras themselves are the only witnesses.
"It is Orwellian at best," she said.
State law, though, says that the picture is all the county needs to fine someone for running a red light, Davis said.
"The citation speaks for itself," he said. "There is no other evidence required."
Since they were installed, red-light cameras at the Lexington-Cherokee-Gaines School Road and Alps-Broad-Hawthorne Avenue intersections have drastically reduced the number of drivers who run those lights, especially young drivers who "caravan" through the intersections 10 or 12 at a time, Athens-Clarke Manager Alan Reddish said.
The number of tickets issued dropped from 1,791 in 2005 to 667 in 2009 at the Eastside intersection and from 13,222 in 2007 to 4,043 last year at the Westside intersection because drivers now know the cameras are there, Reddish said.
Rear-end collisions are up slightly at those intersections, he said, but sideswipes that often result in more serious injuries are down, he said.
The cameras work so well at deterring drivers from running red lights that they no longer generate revenue for the county government. Money from fines is set aside to operate the cameras, and officials expect them to run a $53,000 deficit next year. Funding left over from past years' fines will be used to plug the hole, Reddish said.
County officials are considering adding red-light cameras to more intersections, he said.