Investigative Summary:

The Austin Independent School District has mailed more than 50,000 violations to drivers for ignoring school bus stop signs since the program started in 2016. Each notice comes with a hefty $300 fine. Last school year, more than half the drivers who fought their ticket won. KXAN Investigator Erin Cargile discovered a difference in how AISD police view the violations versus the judge who hears the appeals.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Ronald Toliver has a darn good driving record. He said he hasn’t gotten a traffic ticket since 1972. But in the summer of 2019, that changed. A violation from the Austin Independent School District police department arrived in his mailbox.

The $300 ticket included pictures of his mother’s car allegedly blowing past the stop sign on the side of an Austin ISD school bus. Toliver lives out-of-state but said he was in Austin that day running errands for his mother who has dementia.

Stop arm camera appeal hearing
Ronald Toliver appealing his $300 stop arm camera ticket to attorney Kevin Cole (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

The ticket also pointed him to a video clip online of the incident, captured by cameras situated on the stop arm of the bus. Toliver said the stop sign wasn’t out long enough for him to see it and hit the brakes.

“I believe if an officer had been behind me and saw what I saw, I wouldn’t have gotten a citation,” Toliver said.

Drivers appeal their $300 tickets

Toliver decided to fight it. We met him at the end of October, while he was sitting in line with more than half a dozen other people, waiting his turn to try and convince a judge that he didn’t break the law.

“I hate to give money away unnecessarily,” Toliver said with a laugh.

stop arm camera hearing
Drivers wait outside the hearing room for their turn to appeal their stop-arm camera tickets (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

Jessica Fox was also in line.

“I can’t believe an officer reviewed this and ticketed me for it,” she said while holding out the citation.

Fox was hopeful the judge would take one look at her violation, and decide the stop sign wasn’t out long enough for her to react.

Gary Brackin and Robert Salazar were there for the same reason.

“I certainly believe in school bus — or any safety, totally — but if a violation didn’t occur, I want to talk about it,” Brackin said. “I don’t want to just have to send my money in.”

Stop arm camera violation
Robert Salazar’s stop arm camera violation (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

Each person met with administrative judge Kevin Cole, who posts up in a room at Austin ISD’s maintenance facility in east Austin on the last full week of each month. Cole is a private attorney who was hired back in 2016 to hear every single school bus stop arm ticket appeal. He sees about 40 to 50 people each day and hears cases Monday through Thursday.

The hearings are public, but the lack of chairs suggests it doesn’t really draw a crowd. Cole sat at a long table in front of two computer screens so he and the driver can view video of the violation together.

stop arm camera hearing
Driver appealing his stop camera ticket to attorney Kevin Cole (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

They talked through the incident, and in many cases, Cole pulled up information from a separate GPS system.

“I just want to make sure that the bus driver did what he or she was trained to do in terms of providing you notice,” Cole told a driver.

Cole checked to see if the bus driver turned on the yellow flashing lights at the right time, prior to engaging the stop sign. He also looks closely to see when the stop arm was fully extended and stopped moving.

“If they’ve begun to pass within one second, we don’t hold them liable,” Cole said.

Different standards and how people get tickets

He said that’s different from what AISD police officers look for when deciding to approve or reject a case from the camera vendor. Once the equipment captures an alleged violator, Verra Mobility (previously called American Traffic Solutions) sends the clips to police to view. AISD police officers examine the evidence and decide if a notice needs to be mailed.

“When the police officers view the video, if it’s a close call as to whether that stop arm had stopped moving, they tend to issue the citation and leave it up to me to make that call,” Cole said.

Still frame of stop arm camera video of Jessica Fox’s alleged violation (Verra Mobility Photo)

AISD Police Assistant Chief Chris Evoy disagrees.

“That’s an incorrect statement,” Evoy said. “We as police officers, we look at what we have in front of us.”

Evoy does not view the video clips himself but spoke for the officers who do and said they only consider it a violation if the warning lights were on, and the stop arm was fully extended when the driver passed it.

When asked if officers have a one-second grace period, like Cole uses, Evoy said “I can’t speak to that, that is a judge’s … that’s our administrative judge’s decision on that.”

At October’s hearing, not everyone won their appeal, but the judge overturned at least four of the first six cases he heard.

Jessica Fox was one of them.

“I feel great,” said Fox. “I saved myself $300.”

Gary Brackin also won his case.

“I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time,” Brackin said.

But they do hope their outcomes encourage other drivers, who question the officers’ call, to get a second opinion.

“I see why they go ahead and issue a ticket because what’s it to them?” said Fox. “Three hundred dollars, maybe somebody won’t fight it.”

AISD Police weigh in on the judge’s decisions

We asked Evoy to watch the video violations and weigh in on several cases the judge threw out.

“I don’t want to go back and forth with the officers’ approval, and with the judge’s [decision],” Evoy said.

He said he would answer the questions offline, and then took the information and said he would have a lieutenant take a look.

Later in the day, a communications officer emailed the following statement to KXAN:

Chief Evoy reviewed the footage and sees that there are factors that he would have considered when issuing the citation. But could see how the officer determined it was a violation.

AISD Police statement on stop-arm camera violations being overturned

Revenue vs. changing driving behavior

Austin ISD started the program in 2016 to change driver behavior, but the district is not really seeing the violation numbers decrease.

  • 2016 = 12,936 violations (program started in February)
  • 2017 = 17,244 violations
  • 2018 = 15,046
  • 2019 = 7,625 (January – June)

As of June 2019, Austin ISD had made a total of more than $3.9 million in revenue, which goes into the general fund. For every $300 violation, the district keeps 40% and the vendor gets 60%.

“I would absolutely like to see the overall number of citations go down,” said Cole.

No matter what the outcome is for drivers he meets, Cole tries to teach an important lesson to every person sitting in front of him.

“I’m not finding you not liable to reward you for beating the stop arm or to encourage you to try to beat the stop arm,” Cole told Toliver.

He typically pulls up a picture of a school bus on the computer screen and explains how drivers should always be on the lookout for the yellow flashing lights on the bus. Just like the yellow lights at a stoplight, it warns drivers they need to start slowing down because the bus driver is about to engage the stop sign.

“This is not the way you really want to get your education, folks,” Toliver said with a laugh. “But it was a fair process.”

Photojournalist Juan Salinas, Photojournalist Todd Bynum, Producer Heather Irving, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this report.