Napa's red-light camera program, which has drawn the ire of thousands of motorists and the Napa County grand jury alike, is illegal, a Napa County Superior Court judge ruled Friday.
Diane Price, presiding judge of the Napa County Superior Court's Appellate Division, ruled that the 2008 contract between the city and Arizona-based Redflex violated state vehicular law.
Price cited the contract's clause that requires the city to pay a fixed monthly fee for each camera-equipped intersection.
"The court agrees with defendant that the city's contract with Redflex is in violation of statute and, therefore, reverses her conviction," Price said.
Price's decision stunned the city which until now had won virtually all motorist appeals. Officials said the program would remain in place while the city seeks a rehearing.
Red-light cameras have been a hot-button city issue for the past several years, with motorists complaining about the size of the fines, which can top $500, and questioning the need for such strict enforcement of right-turn violations.
The grand jury noted that the cameras are ruthlessly efficient, nabbing 9,278 motorists at four city locations between May 2009 and September 2010.
Price's opinion stems from the case of Napa resident Melinda Daugherty who was fined $504 in May 2010 for allegedly making an illegal right-hand turn at the intersection of Highways 29 and 221 south of town.
"She denies she made an illegal turn," said her attorney, Peter Winkler, of Tiburon.
Daugherty fought back in traffic court, but the judge ruled against her. Then she appealed her conviction.
In her opinion reversing Daugherty's conviction, Price zeroed on the 2008 contract. State law, Price said, prohibits that a contract between a governmental agency and a private company include a provision for payment based on the number of citations generated.
Under the agreement, the city pays fixed fees of $5,670 or $6,000 per month per intersection.
If only one citation were issued every month, Price wrote, Redflex would never receive the full monthly payment it would otherwise receive if there were sufficient citations issued to cover the monthly fixed fee.
"In other words, Redflex's receipt of full payment is dependent on the issuance of a sufficient number of citations," she said.
On Wednesday, Napa Police Capt. Jeff Troendly said city officials will seek a rehearing with the judge next week. The city believes the contract is legal and will continue with the camera program, he said.
Earlier in the week, Troendly said the program, along with other measures, have been effective in reducing the number of collisions in Napa.
Winkler said the city failed to appear before Price during Daugherty's appeal, which may disqualify the city from seeking a rehearing. "It's not obvious to me how the city can step into the case," he said.
If Daugherty's ticket wasn't valid, then, arguably, all the citations issued over the past three years due to camera enforcement are illegal, Winkler said.
"There is a very strong case that all the red-light tickets in Napa at least in theory should be dismissed," he said.
In March, the Napa County grand jury found the red-light camera program seriously flawed and called for a moratorium on citations issued at the Highway 29/Highway 121 right-turn intersection, citing the timing of the yellow-light interval.
The grand jury also recommended that some of the drivers cited at that intersection have their fines refunded.