RCW 46.63.170, "Automated Traffic Safety Cameras," is simply an enabling statute. It allows local municipalities to create laws enforcing certain traffic infractions, but it does not itself make any action an infraction. If your local jurisdiction has not enacted a statute it has no authority to issue photo tickets. (Note: cities and counties using automated traffic safety cameras before July 24, 2005, are subject to the restrictions described in RCW 646.63.170, but are not required to enact an authorizing ordinance.)
Limited Applications Authorized
The use of "automated taffic safety cameras" is limited to "two-arterial intersections, railroad crossings, and school speed zones." An issue here is that several cities have installed these cameras at intersections where three or roads meet, which is not authorized.
Photo Enforced Zones Must be Clearly Marked
All locations where an "automated traffic safety camera" is used must be clearly marked with signs in locations that clearly indicate to a driver that he or she is entering a zone where traffic laws are photo-enforced. It is simply not sufficient to have signs that indicate that a reduced speed limit applies when lights flashing or children are present.
Equivalent to a Parking Ticket
The most important thing to understand about these ticket is that automated traffic camera infractions are not reported as part of the registered owner's driving record under RCW 46.52.101 and 46.52.120. Any infractions issued as a result of the use of an "automated traffic safety camera" are processed in the same manner as parking infractions. In addition, the fine "shall not exceed the amount of a fine issued for other parking infractions within the jurisdiction."
Photos of Driver Prohibited
RCW 46.63.170(d) states: "Automated traffic safety cameras may only take pictures of the vehicle and vehicle license plate and only while an infraction is occurring. The picture must not reveal the face of the driver or of passengers in the vehicle." Because of this the ticket is always mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle.
Registered Owner Presumed to be the Driver
The officer issuing the infraction must include a certificate, based upon inspection of photographs or electronic images produced by an automated traffic safety camera, stating the facts supporting the notice of infraction. This certificate establishs a prima facie case that the infraction was committed and the presumption that the registered owner was also the driver. (Except in the case of Rental Cars, where the rental company is not presumed to be the driver and must either identify the driver or pay the ticket.)
What to Do if the Registered Owner was not the Driver
RCW 46.63.075(2) allows the presumption that the registered owner was operating the vehicle at the time by submitting may be overcome "only if the registered owner states, under oath, in a written statement to the court or in testimony before the court that the vehicle involved was, at the time, stolen or in the care, custody, or control of some person other than the registered owner." There are two things that are important to understand about these affidavits. First, the registered owner submits this to the court under penalty of perjury (and its not worth risking a felony to get out of a "parking ticket"). Second, while the affidavits that the courts provide ask for the registered owner to provide the name of the driver, this does not appear to be actually required by the law.
Some Other Potential Defenses and Issues
This is not intended to be a complete list and some of the items are discussed above, as well: (a) tickets must be mailed within 14 days; (b) there must be a seperate local enacting statute; (c) zones must be clearly marked; (e) it also must be clearly marked when the reduced speed limits in school zones apply (eg. when lights flashing, 8 am - 3 pm, when children present, etc.); (d) compensation paid to the enforcement camera vendors cannot be contingent on ticket revenue (thus, agencies must either own the cameras or pay a fixed rental fee); (e) must be intersection, RR crossing or school zone; (f) notice of infraction must include proper certificate; (e) fines must be the same as parking tickets (it is debatable whether the administrative costs currently being added by most courts are allowable); and (f) the legislative intent is that the primary purpose be to promote safety not to generate revenue.
Whether to Hire a Ticket Lawyer
It simply doesn't make sense to me to hire a ticket lawyer or show up to court for these cases unless you have a 100% guaranteed defense. Because the ticket does not affect your insurance rates, the benefits of winning are not that big and the cost of a lawyer will be greater than the ticket. The statute allows a photo ticket recipient to resond by mail. If the registered owner was the driver it seems simpler and more cost effective to mitigate. If the registered owner was not the driver, he or she can respond by submitting an affidavit. I certainly can understand if you want to fight one of these tickets on principal as they seem to be little more than another way to levy taxes on residents. Just be sure you understand that you will probably be winning little more than some personal satisfaction.