Photo ticket dropped after driver argues school zone's legality

The school zone speed enforcement cameras for Saghalie Middle School are located on 21st Avenue SW, along the west side of Fred Meyer. The school itself is located on 19th Avenue SW on the opposite side of Fred Meyer. - Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror
The school zone speed enforcement cameras for Saghalie Middle School are located on 21st Avenue SW, along the west side of Fred Meyer. The school itself is located on 19th Avenue SW on the opposite side of Fred Meyer.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

A Federal Way resident’s photo ticket was dismissed after the driver argued the legality of a school zone.

Stephen Cramer received a ticket from photo enforcement cameras for allegedly driving 28 mph in a 20 mph school zone on 21st Avenue SW, adjacent to the Fred Meyer.

The nearest school, Saghalie Middle School, is located on the opposite side of Fred Meyer along 19th Avenue SW.

When contesting his ticket in Federal Way Municipal Court on Aug. 9, Cramer brought a Google-created map of the area that showed Saghalie’s border was 1,090 feet from the designated school zone on 21st Avenue SW. He argued a provision of state law in which school speed zones “may extend 300 feet from the border of the school.”

With the map as evidence, Cramer argued that there could be no school zone at this location by law, and said the 35 mph posted speed limit applied. The judge pro tempore in this case, Mary E. Lynch, dismissed the $210 ticket.

“I think the city should take out the photo enforcement on 21st Avenue SW and refund the money for thousands of citizens,” said Cramer, whose alleged violation occurred at 3:03 p.m. May 6. “I personally think it’s just bad government to put in something like this for the sole purpose of collecting money from the citizens.”

In an email to The Mirror, city spokesman Chris Carrel wrote that the school zone is legal. State law allows cities to place a school speed zone 300 feet in either direction from a marked crosswalk. The Saghalie school zone was established with the marked crosswalk on 21st Avenue SW, Carrel said.

“The crosswalk is legally designated by the school district as a safe walking route according to state law,” Carrel said. “Therefore, according to Principle 1 of RCW 41.61.440, the school zone is legal.”

Federal Way traffic attorney Herman Brewer said taxpayers who use the same defense as Cramer for a violation in this school zone should be entitled to the same dismissal.

“For someone else to come in afterward and make the same argument and be denied, it would be inconsistent and unjust,” Brewer told The Mirror. “The rest of the judges will have to be consistent or else it’s unfair to the citizens.”

Cramer cited the following state law (RCW 46.61.440, principal 2) to help get his ticket dismissed. According to the law, a city may create a school speed zone on a road bordering a marked school. The law says “the school or playground speed zone may extend 300 feet from the border of the school or playground property. However, the speed zone may only include area consistent with active school or playground use.”

Brewer said that state laws should be interpreted in their totality, which would therefore validate the judge’s dismissal of Cramer’s ticket. Based on the dismissal, the school zone on 21st Avenue SW should be deemed illegal. Brewer said the city should remove the cameras in this zone, “or dismiss all the tickets that come through there until they take it down.”

Anyone who receives a citation may contest it, or request mitigation, in front of a judge at the city’s court. The court typically allows the prosecution to challenge a defense that could resurface in future cases. In this case, Carrel said, the prosecution did not challenge Cramer’s claim.

“If it is brought up in a future court case, the city will challenge the claim and fully defend the validity of the school zone, which protects the safety of children traveling to and from Saghalie Middle School,” Carrel said. “It is unfortunate that Mr. Cramer was speeding through the school zone at 28 mph in a 20 mph zone but had his ticket wrongly dismissed on this point.”

FYI: Photo enforcement

In December 2009, the city installed speed enforcement cameras on 21st Avenue SW in response to “ongoing school zone safety concerns at Saghalie Middle School.” According to a Sept. 2012 memo from the Federal Way Police Department, a total of 5,900 citations were issued over alleged speed violations in the Saghalie speed zone on 21st Avenue SW.

Federal Way contracts with Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions (ATS) on the cameras. Photo tickets are reviewed by both ATS and a Federal Way police officer before the citation is mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle. ATS reported that the Saghalie school zone saw a 65 percent drop in speed violations from January-May 2010 to the same test period in 2011.

(Pictured: The Google-generated map that Stephen Cramer used as evidence to get his ticket dismissed Aug. 9 in Federal Way Municipal Court.)

By the numbers

• In Federal Way, there are 14 cameras at 11 locations. Eight cameras capture red light violations, and six cameras target school zone speeders.

• All revenue generated from the cameras is required by law to accrue in the city’s Traffic Safety Fund. In 2010, revenue was reported at $1.5 million. In 2011, revenue was reported at $946,607 (several cameras went “off-line” for upgrades). In 2012, revenue was reported at $1.8 million.

• According to the city’s budget, revenue from photo enforcement is divided among Federal Way Municipal Court ($50,000), Federal Way Police Department ($450,000) and the Public Works Department ($330,000). In total, $830,000 is budgeted in the general fund for photo enforcement revenues. According to a city spokesman, “excess revenues would accumulate in that fund’s ending fund balance.”

• In the city’s 2013-14 budget, $200,000 from the Traffic Safety Fund was used to restore two police officer positions. Also from the fund, the budget includes a “one-time transfer of $45,000 to police for additional costs related to replacement of Total Station Equipment.” City ordinance requires that the Traffic Safety Fund “is to be used for (but not limited) to prevention, education, and enforcement efforts related to traffic safety and compliance with traffic control devices within the city, including maintenance and operations.”

• According to the city’s latest budget, the number of photo enforcement hearings at Federal Way Municipal Court increased from 4,181 in 2011 to 7,229 in 2012.

Learn more

• What's the best way to avoid paying a ticket from a Federal Way traffic camera? Fight it, says a local traffic attorney. Click here to read more.

In this 2012 report, Federal Way Police Chief Brian Wilson addresses photo enforcement in three school zones.

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