If you want to fight a traffic-camera ticket in Tacoma, prepare to pay through the nose.
That said, you might win. Kevin Schmadeka did, after arguing against a fat surcharge the city levied against him when he tried to defend himself.
Schmadeka, a South Hill resident, got a camera ticket in September. He contested the citation in Tacoma Municipal Court, asking for a hearing and the evidence against him. He wanted to call the camera technician to testify.
The paperwork came back. Schmadeka reeled from sticker shock.
The court provided a generic form. It said the defendant would pay all the costs to call the witness: travel time, meals, hotel accommodations. Total fee: $670.30, with a requirement to pay in full two weeks before the hearing. No mention of a refund.
“I was inquiring at the clerk’s office about chain-of-custody info,” Schmadeka said. “He happened to mention that there was a fee for subpoenaing somebody from the camera company. I requested more information about that. They gave me that form.”
The fee dwarfs the $124 hit for a typical camera ticket. Proving your innocence in Tacoma costs more than five times as much as admitting guilt. The city’s form requires a dated signature from the defendant under a bold-faced, all-caps underlined statement:
“THE COSTS OF THE TECHNICIAN WILL BE THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE DEFENDANT.”
“Oh, come on,” said Tacoma attorney Martin Duenhoelter. He has practiced law in the city for 22 years. He knows the local traffic courts. He has never met Schmadeka, and said he’d never heard of Tacoma’s pay-up-front scheme.
Duenhoelter mused over a potential legal analysis. (“Huge implications. What if you’re not guilty?”)
His instinctive reaction was sharper.
“It’s punitive,” he said. “Talk about a chilling effect on due process.”
Traffic court is an assembly line. Typically, contested hearings take minutes at most. Technically, cities treat camera tickets as parking tickets — a civil matter.
Defendants who contest tickets often represent themselves. Some tell sad stories. Others demand testimony from the cop who wrote the ticket and aimed the radar gun — or, in the 21st century, the technician who ran the traffic camera.
A few defendants — scholar types like Schmadeka — play clubhouse lawyer and launch long legal arguments.
That’s what Schmadeka did Nov. 16. His 23-page legal brief argued 37 points, handed to Municipal Court Commissioner Randy Hansen.
The hearing was quick. Hansen brushed off the 37 points and lingered over item 4: the business about paying an up-front $670 fee to call the camera technician as a witness.
Schmadeka hadn’t paid the fee. He argued it was unconstitutional.
“Since when in America is a defendant required to pay for the privilege of facing his accuser?” he wrote.
Hansen saw merit, Schmadeka said. The camera ticket evaporated. Case dismissed.
“He picked out that one issue,” Schmadeka said. “He agreed that that was improper, and he dismissed it on that basis.”
The up-front fee is Tacoma-centric, unique among Pierce County’s four camera-ticket cities. The other three — Lakewood, Puyallup and Fife — don’t charge it.
Lakewood contracts with Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. The same vendor supplies cameras in Tacoma and Fife. (Puyallup uses American Traffic Solutions Inc., a competing vendor.)
In Lakewood Municipal Court, a Redflex camera technician appears once a month for contested hearings, scheduled beforehand. Camera-ticket defendants don’t have to pay extra to ask the standard questions.
“No, we don’t do that,” said court administrator Deana Wright. “We subpoena the technician if people want to have him come. Nobody bears the cost of that but the court. He is here every month regardless. No defendant would bear the cost of that.”
The same goes for Fife and Puyallup municipal courts: There’s no charge to subpoena the camera technician, officials said.
Is something hidden in the fine print? Contracts among the three Redflex cities, including Tacoma, use similar wording: Redflex agrees to provide expert court testimony with proper notice.
The contracts say nothing about charging defendants an additional up-front fee. Tacoma charges it; Lakewood and Fife don’t.
Puyallup uses a different vendor, but the contract language is similar: the vendor agrees to provide expert testimony. No mention of additional fees.
How did Tacoma decide to charge a fee? Answers are murky. Mark Oldenburg, Municipal Court administrator, said he’d have to research the question. He’s new on the job, hired in October.
Oldenburg’s predecessor, Yvonne Pettus, now works in the Thurston County Superior Court clerk’s office. Pettus recalled receiving invoices from Redflex for expert testimony, which prompted consultation with the Tacoma City Attorney’s office.
“There really wasn’t some standard procedure to go by; we had to create what the process would be,” Pettus recalled. “Somebody wanted to subpoena. The prosecutor said it’s a civil case — the defendant should pay for the witness.”
Tacoma City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said she wasn’t aware of the fee. She could not verify whether someone in her office provided the advice to court officials, though she said it wouldn’t be unusual.
“If the court asks us to help them take a look at that, certainly,” she said. She said she hadn’t looked closely at the issue of the fee.
“At first blush, it doesn’t appear to be inconsistent with the rules of discovery,” she added. “If the court is interested in taking another look at it, we’re certainly willing to help.”
As for Schmadeka, he intends to wage war against traffic cameras.
“I’m planning to continue running red lights and keep getting more tickets, to keep chipping away at the constitutional issues,” he said. “I’m planning on making a project out of this.”
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486