Vol. 29 No. 16 California Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Red Light Cameras


 In the case of People v. Carmen Goldsmith, (Case Number  S201443 (June 5, 2014)), the California Supreme Court unanimously upheld use of “red light cameras” and rejected a motorist’s demand for testimony from the camera’s manufacturer.


Pursuant to Vehicle Code section 21455.5, local governmental agencies are statutorily authorized to equip an intersection with an automated traffic enforcement system (ATES), provided the system meets certain requirements.  One such requirement is that the system must be identified by signs visible to approaching traffic.

The City of Inglewood elected to operate an ATES at certain intersections within the City limits. On March 13, 2009, one such intersection equipped with ATES cameras, captured a motorist failing to stop at a red light.  After being issued a notice to appear, the motorist appeared in court and entered a plea of not guilty.  At the court trial, the key evidence against the motorist were the photos and videos produced by the ATES equipment.

At the trial, the only witness that testified was an investigator with the Inglewood Police Department. The investigator testified that the citation was the result of the City’s red light camera program, which was operated by the police but was actually maintained by a private company. He testified as to his general understanding as to how the ATES programs work.  The investigator further testified that the photographs and videos from the ATES showed that the defendant ran a red light at a particular location.

The motorist objected to the investigator’s testimony and the introduction of the ATES generated evidence on the grounds of lack of foundation and hearsay.  The trial court overruled the motorist’s objections and found beyond a reasonable doubt that the motorist was guilty of failing to stop at red light and imposed a fine.  The conviction was upheld on appeal by the Court of Appeal.  The California Supreme Court granted review and likewise affirmed the conviction.


The motorist contended that the trial court erred in admitting the ATES evidence because the prosecution failed to provide the foundational testimony necessary to authenticate it and because the evidence included inadmissible hearsay.

The Court began its analysis by determining whether the ATES evidence was properly authenticated. Authentication requires that there is sufficient evidence for a trier of fact to find that the photograph or video is what it purports to be.  (People v. Valdez, (2011) 201 Cal.App.4th 1429, 1434-1435.) Here, the ATES evidence was offered to show what occurred at a particular intersection in the City at a particular date and time.  The Court noted that there is a long history of permitting a “silent witness” to testify as to the content of photographs. (People v. Bowley, (1963) 59 Cal.2d 855, 860.)

The Court emphasizes that the presumptions of Evidence Code sections 1552 and 1553 (also known as the secondary evidence rule) provide that, in the absence of contrary evidence, the printed versions of ATES images and data are accurate representations of the images and data stored in the ATES equipment.  The Court rejected the motorist’s argument that applying these presumptions somehow violated her constitutional due process rights.

Thus, the Court found that the investigator’s testimony was adequate to show that the ATES photographs were from the ATES equipment from the intersection at issue.  The Court disagreed with the motorist’s argument that in order for the prosecution to authenticate the photographs and video from the ATES equipment, they must call a witness with special expertise in the operation of the ATES computers.  In sum, the standard foundational showing for authentication of a photograph or video will suffice for ATES images and its corresponding data information.  As in this case, a police officer generally familiar with the ATES can authenticate ATES images at trial.  A witness from the third party private company which actually maintains the ATES is not necessary.

The Supreme Court further refuted the motorist’s argument that the ATES evidence was hearsay.  The motorist argued that some of the data bar information imprinted on the ATES photographs constituted hearsay. The Court acknowledged that the images were captured in the ATES cameras without any human presence at the site.  The Court observed that when the camera is activated, the camera takes photographs and video and that information is imprinted on a data bar on the photographs.

The Court found that the ATES-generated photographs and video did not constitute hearsay because they were not statements “of a person,” which is a requirement for a hearsay statement under Evidence Code section 225. The Court relied on the legislative history of Vehicle Code section 21455.5 to support its conclusion that ATES evidence has non-hearsay status because machines are not declarants.

The motorist further contended that the special circumstances of red light traffic cases warranted a heightened evidentiary requirement before ATES photographs or videos should be admissible. The Court rejected this argument as well, however.  In sum, the Court found that the testimony from the city police officer who had familiarity with the ATES system was sufficient for introducing the ATES   generated photographs and videos into evidence.

Holding and Discussion

The California Supreme Court rejected the motorist’s contention that prosecutors are required to call as a witness, a representative from the camera companies to dispel “public distrust” of the ATES system.  Instead, the Supreme Court noted, “We have long approved the substantive use of photographs as essentially a ‘silent witness’ to the content.”  As such, the computer-generated images like those the ATES cameras produce, are presumed accurate without the need for expert testimony about how the machines work.

The Goldsmith case is a significant, positive decision for law enforcement agencies and municipalities that utilize red light cameras to combat traffic violations. The case clarifies and simplifies the admission of red light camera evidence, which, in turn, should significantly decrease evidentiary challenges to the admission this type of evidence at trial.

You are encouraged to consult with your designated legal counsel for further advice on this or any other matter.  And as always, if you wish to discuss this in greater detail, please feel free to contact Jim Touchstone at (714) 446-1400, or email him at jrt@jones-mayer.com.  Alternatively, you may contact Ryan Jones at (916) 771-0635, or email him at rrj@jones-mayer.com.

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