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Dallas switches red light law for first responders

By Tanya Eiserer
Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — A new law will allow emergency workers to run red lights in the line of duty without worrying about getting a red-light camera citation.

The new law, which takes effect Sept. 1, clarifies existing state law, which exempts emergency vehicles from being penalized under the state’s criminal traffic laws, but didn’t provide an exemption for red-light camera citations.

Without the law, police, firefighters and other emergency responders risked being personally liable for any red-light civil citations they received. Such fines can run up to $75, not counting up to $25 in late fees.

“To me, it makes common sense,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who authored the bill. “It doesn’t seem right that these tickets were being issued.”

Some police departments, including the Dallas Police Department, have had policies in place that required any officer who ran a red light without proper cause to be responsible when ticketed by red-light cameras.

In Dallas, police vehicles accounted for nearly 1,200 red-light citations. Of the more than 700 cases reviewed to date, the department found that the driver was justified in running the red light 74 percent of the time.

The city ordered that another 14 percent had to be paid or contested by the police employee, and 12 percent of the reviewed cases involved drivers who could not be specifically identified by the department.

The department has not kept records on how many officers actually ended up paying citations.

About 470 citations were still under review when the Police Department decided Thursday that it would suspend reviews of the violations.

“The numbers clearly indicate that we’re, quite frankly, doing a good job with our driving,” said Assistant Police Chief Daniel Garcia, who oversees the administrative bureau. “We wanted to make sure that our officers were doing police work, and the numbers now clearly indicate we can prove that now.”

Dallas Fire-Rescue, which had received only a few dozen red-light citations, also decided Friday to suspend review of the citations.

Chris Jones, a Houston police sergeant and a legislative consultant for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said his organization sought the new law because of the difficulties different red-light camera policies created for law enforcement. Officers from one jurisdiction were getting citations for running a red light in another jurisdiction while going to a call, he said.

“There was no provision in the law that allowed those cases to be dismissed as a matter of course,” Jones said. “The chief would get the ticket and say, ‘Well, I have to do something.’ They would call the officer in and say, ‘You handle it. If you don’t like it, appeal it.’ It was just a bureaucratic red-tape nightmare.”

The new law does not preclude departments from taking administrative disciplinary action if officers violate department policies.

Sgt. James Bristo, vice president of the Dallas Fraternal Order of Police, welcomes the new law.

It took him at least an hour to pull the videos, check call sheets and reports and talk to the officers to figure out whether an officer had a good reason for running a red light, he said. Some citations were months old by the time they reached his desk, making it more difficult to determine who was driving.

“The officers are trying to do their job,” Bristo said. “They’re not out running red lights in the middle of the afternoon to try to get to the Dairy Queen.”

Copyright 2009 Dallas Morning News