They elicit fear in the hearts of many a Modesto driver: red-light cameras, guarding the city's busiest intersections and warning drivers of a $360 fee if they're caught in the flash.
But are they legal?
A panel of Southern California judges last month said no, and law enforcement agencies in Stanislaus County are taking notice.
In its May 21 decision to throw out a man's red-light ticket, an appellate panel of Orange County Superior Court judges ruled the photos taken by the red-light cameras were inadmissible in court. They said such evidence was hearsay because no police officer witnessed the driver run the red light, and the camera company did not testify about the validity of the photos.
"I think this is exactly what the defense have been arguing for a long time," Modesto attorney Jakrun Sodhi said Friday. "Now we're all given the right to go into court and argue on a fair playing field."
Modesto, the only Stanislaus County city with red-light cameras, is still issuing citations while officials review the ruling. Last year, the City Council voted unanimously to double the number of cameras at the city's high-traffic intersections, from four to eight.
But the recent decision gave Turlock officials pause. The city has suspended indefinitely a proposal to install up to 10 red-light cameras over five years.
"We're just holding off, trying to do what's right," said Turlock police Lt. Ron Reid. "We want to do what is best for the community and we, by no means, want to violate anyone's right to due process."
Web site cites backlash
A Los Angeles man who anonymously edits the Web site HighwayRobbery.net -- which aggregates information about camera programs in California cities, pending legislation and safety statistics -- said the number of new red-light camera contracts in California have leveled off. He attributes that to a growing public backlash against the devices, often seen as a money grab for hard-up local governments.
Manteca canceled a camera contract and Fresno shut down its program, according to the Web site.
"I think people have figured that out -- it's about the money," said the self- professed camera critic.
Modesto police Lt. Scott Blom disagrees, calling the cameras an "effective deterrent" to motorists tempted to make the dangerous gamble of running a red light.
"It's not about making money. It's about safety and it's about awareness," Blom said. "They're not meant to be big money generators."
But the cameras do bring money into the city. According to the latest figures, Modesto's four cameras generated $455,000 in traffic fines in 2008. The city paid Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems $309,000 for the cameras during the same year.
Whether or not the cameras make the streets safer is also up for debate.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's studies in Fairfax, Va., and Oxnard found that camera enforcement reduced red-light running violations by about 40 percent. But Federal Highway Administration research also found they could increase rear-end accidents, as drivers often brake suddenly to avoid being caught by the cameras.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.