Silvestri: Reflections on an encounter with the camera police

By The Richmond Times-Dispatch

It’s a good bet that all drivers will encounter the camera police one day.

I’m here to report my first experience.

Not so good.

The use of cameras at dangerous intersections and on busy highway tolls generates debate.

Is it smart law enforcement or an unchecked invasion of privacy?

Can we trust the monitors to be right or should we accept nothing less than 100 percent accuracy?

Is it a temptation for juiced-up revenue for agencies and government, or is it a new lower-cost way to use technology to ensure everyone pays what’s owed?

Here’s my take:

While it helps police catch brash violators, not all occurrences are clear-cut. Allowances are required.

My case involves the E-ZPass system and the Downtown Expressway in the city of Richmond.

The day’s personal snail mail last month included one of those official-looking envelopes that can only spell headaches.

The white envelope presented a “Toll Violation Notice” from the “Violation Processing Center” in Clifton Forge, dated Aug. 6.


Next to my name and address was a picture of my car moving along a road somewhere. Only the back third of the vehicle was visible. The rest was pavement.

The letter and an attachment flagged me for not toll roads payment are twice on the “RMA Plaza: 132 Lane: 47.” That would be one of the relatively new pass-through lanes downtown heading west that doesn’t require a motorist to go through a tollbooth and wait to see the green “thank you” light as the gate goes up.

E-ZPass wanted its $1.40.

And more.

Because the camera police assumed I’m a violator, “an administrative fee” of $25 was tacked on, but only if I paid promptly.

And if, a month from the dated letter, no payment’s been received, “an administrative fee of $25.00 for each violation will be applied.”

The back of the letter listed payment instructions, how to dispute the charges and a “dispute request form,” which includes telling E-ZPass my car was stolen, sold, leased or was a rental. You also can ask for a review of the license-plate image.

“If you believe this notice has been issued in error, follow the dispute instructions on the back.”

I called the toll-free number on the evening of Aug. 8.

The customer-service representative was pleasant. And it didn’t take long to figure out the roots of a problem.

My account listed an outdated license plate: right car, wrong plate.

My plate changed more than a year-and-a-half ago in a car purchase.

Somehow, it wasn’t recorded. OK, my bad.

But when I asked about the E-ZPass process, it was concerning.

My account showed I had gone through “Lane: 47” nine times from May 13 until Aug. 6 with tolls being charged. The problem trips were July 22 and July 28. No tolls were taken.

So why wasn’t I flagged on May 13?


If you deducted highway tolls from my PREPAID account for nine other times, why issue a notice now?

I was told maybe my transponder — the white, plastic square stuck to the top of my front windshield — might be defective. (We all live in fear that the battery will poop out with antsy motorists lined up behind us and the gate bar not responding.)

Nope. It works just fine going through the gated toll lanes.

OK, she continued, maybe the windshield tint is blocking the transponder’s signal.

Nope. According to my account, I’ve gone through the RMA tolls many times without issue.

Well, call back the violation processing center the next day to resolve the problem, I was told.

I did first thing in the morning, when another pleasant customer-service rep handled my call.

We went through the situation again.

Because I had a long record of toll road payments, she agreed to waive the fine, er, fee.

We also updated the record with the right license plate.

But if I were such a great customer, why didn’t someone call me first before issuing a violation notice?


The system assumes you’re guilty until you prove yourself innocent.

What is this ... England?

The camera police are new to the scene.

Innocent-until-proven-guilty is a better approach during the rollout of overhead cameras to spot toll nonpayers.

When we use a toll road for convenience, we do so knowing we will have to pay to drive it.

I get that.

But if your account shows hundreds of dollars flowing to E-ZPass over the years, there’s an important context. We’re doing the right thing.

That’s not in the camera police’s job description.

It should be.

Makes me wonder whether many other not-guilty motorists are getting letters as well.