A federal judge recently ruled that the petition to amend the Houston Charter to prohibit red light cameras is invalid. According to the Houston Charter, a petition to repeal an ordinance must be turned in within 30 days of when this law is to take effect. Clearly this did not happen; however, the petition was not to overturn the ordinance. Rather, the initiative was to amend the Charter to outlaw red light cameras in Houston. The two are similar but not exactly the same. Read the judge’s summary here.
The decision says that the “nature of the proposition was to repeal a single ordinance about techniques for enforcing traffic laws.” However, it also says that Houston had “an election on a citizens’ petition to amend its charter to disallow the use of red-light cameras.” So which is it? A charter amendment, or a repeal of an ordiance? Does this mean that there can never be a Charter amendment in Houston that also goes against an ordinance?
Charter amendments or constitutional amendments usually come into place to overturn bad policies and to make sure nothing along those lines can ever happen again; however getting too specific in a charter or constitution is problematic, and it would be illogical and irresponsible to have so much detail in a charter/constitution that it warrants it ineffective. The Texas Constitution has been amended over 400 times, and not many people know it as well as the US Constitution, only amended 27 times. So the judge probably ruled incorrectly, but at the same time, our Charter shouldn’t be so specific that it turns into legislation rather than a general rule. In my opinion, the red light camera ordinance violates the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, the Confrontation Clause. If a police officer writes someone a ticket for running a red light, he or she must show up in court, or the ticket is rendered invalid because there is no witness. In the case of the cameras, there is no one to confront. The right to confront and cross-examine witnesses also applies to physical evidence, but you can’t go before a judge in a red light camera case and explain your case or dispute the image. So, if Houstonians want to fight this again, they should sign a petition to change the Charter to not allow any tickets that are given to people by a machine/companies where people cannot fairly dispute it in court. This is much more general and could possibly be applied to other scenarios later, and this would be a way to repeal the ordinance without mentioning red light cameras. Hopefully a judge would see it this way too.
Although the cameras are still up and working, no tickets are being issues. Mayor Parker agrees with the ruling, but she is being prudent by not authorizing tickets until she discusses it with City Council and determines what is appropriate.