AUSTIN (KXAN) – There are more than 100 Texas lawmakers working to pull the plug on Texas red light cameras. The effort to strip the only enforcement element from the camera law passed the House Transportation Committee Thursday.
Rep. Cole Hefner’s, R-Mount Pleasant, House Bill 901 would ban cities with red light camera tickets from using the “Scofflaw” program to block vehicle owners’ registration renewals for failing to pay a red-light camera ticket fine. The current red-light camera law does not allow law enforcement to sign a warrant for failing to pay one of these fines.
The current law only allows cities to contract with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to block vehicle registrations for failing to pay these tickets.
Hefner’s bill passed the committee with no amendments and could be headed to the House floor for debate before the end of the session.
But in our investigation of Texas cities with red light camera programs, we found more than half of those cities don’t have contracts with TxDMV to hold registrations.
Meaning, if you decide to not pay a fine in those cities, those cities can’t touch your vehicle registration.
Data provided to KXAN through an open records act shows only 23 Texas cities have a current red light camera Scofflaw contract with the DMV.
The city of Austin is one of those cities that has no way to enforce the 93,000 tickets its issued drivers since nine cameras went up in 2009. In an email sent to KXAN on Friday, the city’s municipal court confirmed the data we obtained from the DMV: the city’s never blocked a vehicle registration over a red light camera ticket.
The reason: the city doesn’t have the authority to do so.
Police departments with the red light cameras contend the cameras make intersections safer and save lives.
“The fact that we’re not doing it now doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” Austin Police Department Sgt. Michael Barger told KXAN. Barger was unaware the city did not have a contract with the DMV to withhold registrations.
23 Texas cities with active TxDMV red light camera Scofflaw contracts
Barger was concerned that stripping the Scofflaw component from the law would give cities, like his, no way to punish drivers for breaking the law. “”If they figure out that you’re not going to do anything about it, then they won’t pay it. Eventually we may go back and have the ability to collect on those with a future law, you never know. But as it stands right now, we’re not doing it.”
The city’s issued more than $7 million in fines since 2009. Many people paid their fines, but city court records show many have not.
The latest city to add red light cameras is Leon Valley, which is a small municipality inside the San Antonio city limits. In 2018, Leon Valley installed red light cameras at 36 intersections and collected more than $1.6 million dollars last year.
Leon Valley Police Chief Joe Salvaggio told the House Transportation Committee two weeks ago, banning red light cameras would be a risk to public safety. Salvaggio has indicated his city was blocking vehicle registrations in the past.
“But to say you don’t have to pay it, you won’t be able to get your vehicle registered when you go to the State of Texas, any of those locations to pay your registration. They won’t register it as long as you have outstanding citations, so it’s in your best interest to pay the violation or even better, not to commit the crime,” KENS in San Antonio quoted Salvaggio as saying in an interview in December.
But our analysis of DMV records show Leon Valley does not have a Scofflaw contract with the DMV and cannot legally block a vehicle registration over an unpaid red light camera ticket.
“You’ve said in the past that you guys will block registrations. The DMV tells us you don’t have a contract to do that,” KXAN Investigator Jody Barr asked Salvaggio at the Capitol in March. “No, we don’t have a contract with Scofflaw right now,” Salvaggio said. “We haven’t installed it yet.”
“Our intention is to eventually go down that road, but I’ll tell you the good part about that is 69% of the people have paid their tickets. They know they’ve done wrong and they want to atone for that and so, I don’t need Scofflaw to tell somebody you’ve done wrong even if that person doesn’t pay the ticket and they really realize from now on, I’m not going to run that stop light — I’ve won. I got what I wanted and that is to correct that behavior and not do it again,” Salvaggio told KXAN.
APD Sgt. Michael Barger issued a warning to those who might choose not to pay an Austin red light camera ticket,” Take advantage of something that we’re not doing, it may change the way that we do things.”