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Red Light Cameras

Stephen Ruth Jr. reached a plea deal for tampering with red light cameras, which will place him on probation for a year in lieu of prison time. Photo from Stephen Ruth Jr.

The merry adventures of Suffolk County’s “Red Light Robin Hood” continued last week as the Centereach resident who took matters into his own hands by tampering with red light cameras across county intersections struck a plea deal with prosecutors. The agreement reached will place him on interim probation for one year in lieu of any prison time.

Stephen Ruth Jr., who has been crusading against the county’s red light camera program since 2015 in an effort to “take the power back” by exposing what he considers government corruption and helping save Suffolk resident’s lives — for which he’s been called a domestic hero on social media — pleaded guilty in Riverhead Feb. 8 to a felony charge of criminal mischief.

Red light cameras along Route 25A, which is where some of the cameras were located that Stephen Ruth Jr. tampered with. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Since the county first installed red light cameras at busy intersections in 2010, which snap flashing photos of cars that run a red light or don’t come to a complete stop before turning right on red, they’ve been widely opposed across the county.

Ruth, who’s become the boastful face of the opposition — as evidenced by his smiley mug shot after first tampering with the devices in 2015 —has consistently called for the program’s repeal before the Suffolk County Legislature. He said the cameras and shortened yellow lights, “shortened to cause red light running for a profit,” are responsible for fatalities and accidents on the roads, have been illegally constructed without an engineer signing off on them, and are nothing more than a Suffolk County “money grab.”

“I was willing to go to jail from the beginning because I’m sticking up on behalf of those people who don’t have a voice anymore,” Ruth said. “These cameras are completely illegal and the [county] is not allowed to collect any money off them whatsoever … I knew this was going on and made my own news.”

Under the plea deal, Attorney David Raimondo said if Ruth successfully completes his probation, the felony plea will be dropped to a misdemeanor.

Stephen Ruth Jr.’s mug shot. File photo from SCPD

The 44-year-old real estate salesman may also have to pay up to $85,000 in restitution for all the cameras and equipment he’d left inoperable — a charge that will be challenged during a restitution hearing in April. Raimondo said he and his client will fight because “we believe that the entire red light camera system program is illegal and every single ticket issued from day one is a nullity.”

In the wake of the court ruling, Raimondo acknowledged that it was a good plea.

“This is something the county has to atone for and will atone for in civil litigation … it is not Stephen’s or his family’s cross to bear,” Raimondo said. “Why should Stephen sacrifice his personal freedom for what I think is nothing more than enterprise corruption?”

As Ruth has always worn his criminal tampering and obstruction of governmental administration as a badge of honor — even proudly demonstrating on his YouTube channel how he uses a painter’s extension rod to reach high-positioned red light cameras to turn its lens away from the road — Raimondo applauded his client for always taking responsibility for what he’s done.

“While I absolutely don’t condone or approve of any form of violence or destruction of property, I admire Stephen’s willingness to bring attention to the public the failures in the engineering behind the camera and how it’s affecting the taxpayers as a penalty and tax,” he said. “I [especially] admire that Stephen brought to the public’s attention the fact that the yellow light times have been shortened by the engineers because unfortunately people have been seriously injured and perhaps killed as a result.”

Red light camera. File photo

Ruth, in calling for a full investigation into the camera program to prove it’s an illegal operation, also wants to spotlight that the county continues to delete videos of any and all accidents that take place at intersections.

James Emanuel, a retired Suffolk County police officer, has dedicated himself to researching and testifying against the program, and is one of Ruth’s avid supporters.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of police officers who privately are a big fan of what he did,” Emanuel said. “You get to the point where you have to push back against the system; you just don’t have a choice. The guy saw a danger and his attitude was, ‘I’m gonna push back.’ He turned himself in every single time and he didn’t have to do that.”

In regards to Ruth’s plea deal, he said the county wants to prevent the program from being put on trial.

“There are thousands of infuriated people,” he said. “How would they find a jury of 12 people that wouldn’t find Stephen not guilty?”

Suffolk County Leg. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said she understands Ruth’s strong feelings and acknowledges that red light cameras, although useful in some intersections, are overused and costly.

“I think what Ruth thought he was doing was making a statement, and he clearly did make a statement,” she said. “But you have to stay within the parameters of the law to make a statement that’s not going to get you in big trouble.”

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta goes over legislation to suspend the camera program. Photo by Phil Corso

The Legislature may not be behind them, but Suffolk County residents are still calling the red light camera program a money grab and a safety hazard.

People cried out in support of county Legislator Rob Trotta’s (R-Fort Salonga) bill to suspend the county’s program during a Public Safety Committee meeting on May 26, but the Suffolk legislative committee stopped it from coming to fruition. The vote was 5 to 3 against a motion to move the bill to the full county Legislature for voting after nearly 20 residents spoke up against the use of the cameras.

Stephen Ruth Jr., pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on June 3 to 17 counts of criminal mischief after allegedly tampering with 16 red light cameras at intersections along Route 25 in Coram. He also spoke at the Legislature meeting late last month.

“Red light cameras are a detriment to Suffolk County,” he said. “The risks and damages to the well-being of Suffolk County residents far outweigh the benefits. We all know now that red lights cameras are a systematic form of extortion and nothing more. … Traffic signals were manipulated for revenue and it was only made possible by Suffolk County’s reckless willingness to do anything for money.”

Stephen Ruth mugshot from SCPD
Stephen Ruth mugshot from SCPD

Residents cited statistics to try to back up their issues with the program, using a 42 percent increase in rear-end collisions in 2014 as evidence of the program’s shortcomings, and said nearly half of the locations where cameras were installed showed an increase in personal injury.

“You’re not here working for the middle class people, you’re actually hurting them,” Hector Gavilla said. “The program is not working at all. We were promised that these red light cameras would stop these incidents.”

But overall, crashes have decreased by 3.1 percent, while T-bone crashes have decreased by 21.6 percent. The data also reflects an overall decrease in crashes involved injury by 4.2 percent, based upon data from the New York State Department of Transportation’s most current data available as of December 2014.

Rachel Lugo, who has worked in highway safety for over 20 years, was the only person to speak in support of the cameras. She said that although crashes have increased, she believes it’s not because of the cameras, but as a result of more new drivers on the road, and “increasingly dangerous” issues like texting and being distracted while driving, drinking while driving and being under the influence of drugs.

“You can’t say that these crashes are increasing because of red light cameras,” she said. “What about stop signs? Let’s take them away also. Why won’t we just take away traffic lights? Red light cameras are not the problem. Teaching the motorists to change their behavior behind the wheel is where we need to start. If everyone stopped at the red lights we wouldn’t have to worry about what’s going on with fines and who is making money.”

There are statistics to back her up.

Paul Margiotta, executive director of Suffolk County’s Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, said that between 2012 and 2013, the county saw a 34,000 increase is licensed drivers, where prior to 2012 the average was trending down. He said citations for texting and driving and distracted driving doubled since 2011, which tends to cause rear-end crashes.

Legislature William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) joined Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) and Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) in voting to pass the bill.

Spencer asked to put the program under a microscope.

“We have to do something,” he said. “It’s hard for me to discount the public outcry. There’s a lot of smoke here. I want to make sure I’m doing my oversight job to make sure I have looked at this with a very detailed eyed.”

A county report says Indian Head Road and Jericho Turnpike in Commack saw crashes increase since a red light camera was installed in 2014. Photo by Phil Corso
A county report says Indian Head Road and Jericho Turnpike in Commack saw crashes increase since a red light camera was installed in 2014. Photo by Phil Corso

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) agreed, although she stated that there was always an expectation that there would be an increase in rear-end crashes.

“Many things we deal with here are not black and white,” she said. “The policy decision was to institute an enforcement mechanism that will decrease the right-angle crashes which cause the more serious injuries and death, with the chance of and the expectation that there will be some uptick in rear-end crashes.”

She said she would like to see a report done on the intersections where there were a large number of rear-end crashes, to see if a majority of them were a result of the cameras, or other things like texting and driving.

According to William Hillman, Suffolk’s chief engineer, that investigation is ongoing. The county is in the process of reviewing crash data at the 42 intersections it controls. The state controls the other 58 intersections with cameras.

“These intersections where there’s been that high uptick, all-due haste is needed in reviewing what is going on so that we have a real answer,” Hahn said. “There’s a huge increase in crashes just in general because of distracted driving. This is happening more and more and red light cameras are not going to stop that. What red light cameras were designed to do was for the folks who were choosing to put their foot on the gas when the light turns yellow, to rethink that. They will actually stop at a red light, and that will save lives when people know that there could be consequences for running a red light. And that probably already has, because we’ve seen a decrease in T-bone crashes, which are more serious and life-threatening, and that is the purpose of the program.”

Stephen Ruth mugshot from SCPD

Police say a man who was previously arrested for tampering with four of Suffolk County’s red light cameras has struck again, this time damaging 19 of them.

The county installed red light cameras at numerous busy intersections in 2010. The cameras snap photos of cars whose drivers have run a red light or did not come to a full stop before turning right on red, and the information captured is used to generate traffic tickets that are sent to the owners.

Signs alert approaching drivers at every intersection where there is a camera.

Centereach resident Stephen Ruth was first cuffed in August for allegedly using a pole to reach several red light cameras in Ronkonkoma and turn their lenses away from the road and toward the sky. He was charged with criminal tampering and obstructing governmental administration. On Tuesday afternoon, the Suffolk County Police Department announced detectives had once again arrested Ruth, this time for allegedly tampering with 19 of the cameras throughout the county.

Related: Police arrest man who pushed away red light cameras on video

Police said Ruth “cut wires and manipulated equipment” on 18 of those cameras between April 9 and 10. The 19th camera incident in question dates back to Jan. 18, police said, when Ruth allegedly cut down a camera pole at the intersection of County Road 83 and Old Town Road in Coram.

According to a police estimate, the incidents caused at least $25,000 of damage.

Ruth, 43, has been charged with two felony counts of second-degree criminal mischief. Hauppauge-based attorneys William J. Keahon and Craig Fleischer are representing him on those charges but are not commenting on the case, according to their law office.

Ruth’s arrest comes about a week after another man was arrested for allegedly tampering with red light cameras. Bryan Valentine, of St. James, has been charged with two counts of second-degree criminal tampering after police said the 26-year-old placed plastic bags over red light cameras at the signal in the Main Street/Landing Avenue intersection in Smithtown.

Related: Man covered up red light cameras

Attorney information for Valentine was not available.

In interviews Ruth — whom his supporters have dubbed the “Red Light Robin Hood” — has stood behind his actions. He has received praise from people who oppose the county’s red light camera program and say it is simply a money grab, as the county receives much revenue from the tickets generated.

File photo

A man was arrested on two counts of criminal tampering on Friday after he allegedly placed plastic bags over red light cameras at a busy Smithtown intersection.

The bags went on cameras at the signal at Main Street and Landing Avenue around 5:30 p.m. that day, the Suffolk County Police Department said, and a passing motorist called 911 to report the man who was covering them.

The cameras, set up through a county program, take pictures of vehicles that run through red lights or don’t stop completely before turning right on red, and the license plate numbers captured in the photos are used to generate traffic tickets.

Police used the suspect’s description from the 911 caller on Friday and later located St. James resident Bryan Valentine nearby. The 26-year-old was charged with two counts of second-degree criminal tampering.

Attorney information for Valentine was not immediately available Monday.

Stephen Ruth mugshot from the SCPD
Stephen Ruth mugshot from the SCPD

The suspect is not the first police have arrested for allegedly tampering with red light cameras. In August, police collared Centereach resident Stephen Ruth, after authorities said he used a pole to reach several red light cameras in Ronkonkoma and turn their lenses away from the road and toward the sky. He was charged with criminal tampering and obstructing governmental administration.

In interviews Ruth has stood behind his actions, and he has received praise from people who oppose the county’s red light camera program and say it is simply a money grab, as the county receives much revenue from the tickets generated.

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When a car runs a red light in Suffolk County, does it make a sound?

Yes. If you listen closely, you’ll hear your wallet being pried open.

Beware the daring driver who goes through a yellow light to traverse a busy intersection. It’ll happen so suddenly. You’ll see a quick flash of white light, followed by a sinking feeling: You just ran a red.

Flash forward weeks later when you get slapped with a $50 ticket. Let’s not forget the $30 administrative fee. And don’t be late with it, or else you could be hit with additional late fees of $25 or more.

Suffolk County’s Red Light Safety Program just feels unjust. Ask any Long Islander about it, and you’re likely to get that eye-roll or an angry tone.

It’s a “money grab,” they’ll say. And they already pay a ton in taxes to live here.

Remember that story over the summer about the Centereach man who used an expandable pole to push the cameras toward the sky? It attracted much attention and numerous shares on social media. To the public, he was known as the “Red Light Robin Hood.” In a follow-up interview with Newsday after his arrest, the man, Stephen Ruth, defended his actions.

“It’s abusive and it’s got to stop,” Ruth told Newsday reporters. “My taxes have doubled. … They keep taking more and more money from people. When is enough, enough?”

GOPers in the Suffolk County Legislature say they feel like Ruth. Some Republicans are calling for greater scrutiny in the program, and some flat out disagree with it all together. A press conference last week singled out the county’s red light program, dubbing it a cheap attempt at building revenue on the backs of everyday citizens.

We agree with that notion, but we do not outright disagree with the program’s premise. Those drivers who purposely whiz through a red light deserve that ticket they’ll eventually receive in the mail, but we don’t feel the same way about drivers slapped with tickets for not stopping enough before a turn at right-on-red intersections. Cameras don’t capture enough of the oncoming traffic in an intersection, in our opinion, to appropriately determine whether or not a right on red was executed safely, and that — to us  — is a textbook money grab.

The county says red-light-running is “one of the major causes of crashes, deaths and injuries at signalized intersections.” The action killed 676 people and injured an estimated 113,000 in 2009, the year before the county program was enacted. And nearly two-thirds of the deaths were people other than the red-light-running drivers.

But while it is a noble intention to stop speeders or those who flagrantly disobey the rules of the road, and to prevent fatalities from occurring, we agree with the notion that the measure is a money grab. We agree the county should stop and yield to the concerns of many and evaluate how to make the program better.

Some Suffolk County elected officials are calling the red light safety program a scam. File photo

Five years after red light cameras were installed in Suffolk County, North Shore officials are still examining the program’s effectiveness, as well as its purpose, by asking: Are the cameras a means of enhancing public safety or simply another source of income for the county?

On Tuesday, Oct. 6, Republican Suffolk County Legislators Tom Muratore (Ronkonkoma); Robert Trotta (Fort Salonga); Leslie Kennedy (Nesconset); Tom Cilmi (Bay Shore); Tom Barraga (West Islip) and Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) addressed some of their concerns when they met to discuss potential reforms to the Red Light Safety Program.

The program was written into law in 2009 and installed red light cameras at up to 50 intersections in Suffolk County. The cameras were installed to capture the backs of the drivers’ cars, as opposed to the drivers themselves. Under the program, drivers who run through a red light face a $50 traffic violation but do not receive points against their license.

Prior to the press conference, Muratore said county Republicans were left in the dark regarding details surrounding the program, such as the duration of various lights. While there are three-second and five-second yellow and red lights, Muratore said it was impossible to identify which lights resided where.

Despite this, Muratore said he found the program relatively reasonable. The legislator said he voted in favor of the program, thinking this new technology would help avoid traffic accidents. But what he disagreed with, he said, was the county’s manipulating of administrative fees associated with the program.

“If you’re getting tens of thousands of tickets and you increase the fee by $5.00, you’re getting half a million to a million dollars, maybe more,” Muratore said in an interview. “That’s just money-grabbing right there.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) did not respond to requests seeking comment.

After Tuesday’s press conference in Riverhead, Trotta said he thinks the “money-grabbing” surpassed Bellone’s proposal to increase the administrative fee. He said the county has $2 billion worth of debt and claimed the program is nothing but an opportunity to collect money to help offset that.

According to Trotta, if the camera “does not produce 25 tickets in a 16-hour period, then the county has to pay $2,136.”

The money is a fixed monthly fee the county must pay the program’s contractor, Baltimore-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc. According to an amendment to the program, the county must also pay an additional $17.25 for each paid citation generated from such enforcement system.

While public safety is a concern for many county officials, Trotta said he does not think there is a safety issue. Some Suffolk County residents also oppose the cameras, so much so that Stephen Ruth of Centereach used a pole to turn the cameras away from the road at various locations. He was arrested in August for tampering, and some hailed him as a “Red Light Robin Hood.” The defendant called the program “abusive.”

Muratore said the issue is not really people running red lights, but drivers’ timing when turning right on red. He said drivers should not receive a ticket for turning right on red when it is permitted, provided they came to a full stop: “They forget they have to stop and then go. There’s no three second rule or five second rule, it’s a full stop.”

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