In the state of Washington USA, my daughter and son-in-law were joint recipients of a red light camera ticket. The law clearly states that the "operator of the motor vehicle" is responsible for the fine, so it would seem to me that the burden of establishing who that operator was is on the state. (they are both registered owners of the vehicle in question)

What is the legal basis for the state charging two people with an infraction and leaving it up to the accused to determine who is at fault?


There are some good and thoughtful answers here, and I appreciate the effort. However, most center on describing the camera ticket process or explaining response options, which isn’t what I was asking.

I was asking how two people can be both accused, (actually found guilty in absentia…) of an infraction for which it is physically impossible for both of them to have committed because there can be only one operator. Like the classic story of murder on a snowbound train; one of the passengers must have done it, but you can’t simply declare them all guilty! (Yes, I understand the traffic infraction isn’t a crime, but still it must follow a legal, and logical process to determine fault.)

Perhaps this is more a philosophical debate without a single correct answer, but several comments have led me to consider the following: If instead of the camera a police officer had pulled the car over after observing that it failed to come to a complete stop before turning right, a citation would be issued that I believe would need to comply with RCW 46.64.015. The name and driver’s license number of the operator would be recorded, and as a moving violation I believe that points would be assigned to that person’s driving record.

If during the course of this same traffic stop the passenger asked that the officer instead issue the citation to them to keep the driver from accumulating more points I don’t believe that would be allowed. If either the passenger or driver asked the officer to accept the fine directly on their behalf to avoid a ticket resulting in points, I believe that would be considered bribery. If the officer winked and suggested that they pay him/her directly to avoid points, that would also be illegal.

If we agree with and accept as truth the points in the paragraph above, how is a redlight camera ticket that promises no points in exchange for cash functionally, ethically, or morally any different?

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    Do they jointly own the car? My understanding is that these laws are typically structured so that the owner of the vehicle is rebuttably presumed to be the operator.
    – bdb484
    May 5, 2022 at 4:22
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    @bdb484, I stated in the question that they are both registered owners. I don't know whether or not they are both listed on the title, but that doesn't change the question does it? May 5, 2022 at 18:41
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    A comment because i think it applies to all of the answers you keep arguing with. What you seem go be missing is that a camera ticket is treated like a parking ticket. No driver gets points. The comment you put about requiring drivers licence number is for regular (not camera)traffic tickets. They can not pay it if they want and then not reregister their car since they won’t be able to and sooner or later they will get stopped for driving with expired tags.
    – Damila
    May 6, 2022 at 3:05
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    @Damila, I haven’t missed that point, and what you may perceive as arguing is me questioning to seek clarity. But you’ve given me an insight that I may expand on in an edit to my question… May 6, 2022 at 15:59
  • I'm really puzzled why the first comment here has received 19 upvotes... In the first part it asks a question about something that was stated right up front, and in the second part states an assumption so obvious I didn't even bother mentioning it: Of course the ticket comes to the registered owner! Who else would they send it to if all they have is a photo?! It completely missed the point of the question, yet 19 people agree with it... May 8, 2022 at 21:04

5 Answers 5


Note: I am not familiar with Washington law, but I can make an educated guess as to what is happening here.

I am guessing that the couple in question are the joint registered owners of the motor vehicle. In many jurisdictions, motor vehicles are treated differently from "normal" things, they are treated as inherently dangerous and thus ownership carries a certain set of responsibilities. (Similar to e.g. owning a firearm, which carries with it certain restrictions on how it can be stored, for example.)

One of those responsibilities is to keep track of who is operating the motor vehicle.

Therefore, unless the operator of the motor vehicle can clearly be identified without incurring unreasonable cost, tickets for traffic violations are generally addressed to the registered owner, who can then forward them to the responsible operator. (Note that "unreasonable cost" does not have to be monetary. It could also be an invasion of privacy: it is less invasive to just ask the owner to identify the operator than to e.g. surveil the owner's property to find out who is using the vehicle or run facial recognition against the owner's family, friends, and colleagues.)

In many jurisdictions, there is a form attached to the ticket (or downloadable from some website) which will look something like this:

  • I accept the ticket: [ ]
  • I do not accept the ticket [ ] because …
    • I was operating the vehicle, but I did not run the red light [ ]
    • I was not operating the vehicle [ ]
      • … the vehicle was operated by: name ___, address ___
      • … I do not know who was operating the vehicle at that time [ ]

If you claim not to know who was operating the vehicle at the time in question, that might have other consequences. In some jurisdictions, you can then be ordered to keep a logbook, for example. If the vehicle then gets caught again and you again claim to now know who was operating it, or you cannot produce the logbook, you might get fined for violating the court order to keep a logbook.

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    The point of this question is "… the vehicle was operated by: name ___, address ___" is compelling testimony that cannot be legally compelled.
    – Joshua
    May 5, 2022 at 18:34
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    @Joshua: How is a form that has two options, one to provide the name of the operator, one to not provide the name of the operator, compelling anything? May 5, 2022 at 18:41
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    The "I didn't do it" isn't the problem. The "I didn't do it because..." is what is problematic. May 5, 2022 at 19:39
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    Here's the problem with all those concerned about privacy: You need to have a license to drive a car. If you give your car to others, they commit traffic offences, and you refuse to give their names, that can affect your driving license. But anyway, if you. don't cooperate, the case will go to court (at least in Germany and the UK), and that will be an awful lot more expensive. And remember, the police had enough evidence to find your license plate. So do you really want to go to court?
    – gnasher729
    May 5, 2022 at 20:16
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    @MIchaelHall: It might help to think of this as a municipal version of a civil trial, with an option to "Settle out of court" - they know who registered the car, because they saw the license plate, and are essentially saying "We have some proof that indicates that you ran this red light, and are charging you for it - you can fight this in court, or tell us if you have evidence someone else did it or that you didn't do it - but we have evidence that it was your car that was being used.". May 6, 2022 at 2:52

Washington State resident here, although it may even depend on the city that issued the ticket. They probably just sent the ticket to you both since you're the registered owners of the car (as others have said). In Seattle, if you look up options for contesting a ticket, you'll see one of your options is:

SUBMIT A DECLARATION OF NON-RESPONSIBILITY: If your vehicle was stolen, sold by you prior to the date of the violation, or was otherwise not in your care, custody or control at the time of the violation, you may submit a sworn statement to that effect to the Court to rebut the presumption, established in SMC 11.31.090, that you were driving the vehicle at the time of the violation.

The form for that simply requires you both to affirm that the vehicle was "in the care, custody or control of a person who is not a registered owner of the vehicle."

You can find similar forms for other cities by googling "declaration of non-responsibilty [city name]"

Some other cities' versions of this form may have a spot for you to list who was driving at the time, but you aren't required to fill that in.

The municipal code referenced in that quote above provides the legal basis for the presumption that the car was being driven by a registered owner, and describes how that presumption may be overcome:

E. In a traffic infraction case involving an infraction detected through the use of an automated traffic safety camera, proof that the particular vehicle described in the notice of traffic infraction was in violation of Section 11.50.140 or, Section 11.50.150 , or Section 11.52.100, together with proof that the person named in the notice of traffic infraction was at the time of the violation the registered owner of the vehicle, constitutes in evidence a prima facie presumption that the registered owner of the vehicle was the person in control of the vehicle at the point where, and for the time during which, the violation occurred. This presumption 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. (Laws of 2005, chapter 167, section 1 and RCW 46.63.075)

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    – Dale M
    Jul 28, 2023 at 4:45

Nobody is "charged" with running a red light in Washington. Instead, pursuant to RCW 46.63.170, red light cameras can be used to assign infractions. One of the restrictions on the use of cameras is that

(d) 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.

which means that the traffic cam cannot record who the driver is. It is also required that

(e) A notice of infraction must be mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle within fourteen days of the violation, or to the renter of a vehicle within fourteen days of establishing the renter's name and address under subsection (3)(a) of this section.

And finally,

(f) The registered owner of a vehicle is responsible for an infraction under RCW 46.63.030(1)(d) unless the registered owner overcomes the presumption in RCW 46.63.075, or, in the case of a rental car business, satisfies the conditions under subsection (3) of this section.

Thus they must

state[], 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

The law does not require the owner to rat out the actual driver, in case they know.

  • Best answer so far. What about apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=46.64.015 that requires the driver's license number to appear on the infraction, and for the offense to have occurred in the officer's presence? May 5, 2022 at 18:57
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    This notice that you are to fill out allows you to close the case at relatively low cost by either paying the ticket, or passing it on to someone else. That's what two of the answers achieve. The other two achieve that you go to court. And not answering also gets you to court. Going to court, if there is a conviction, will be typical much more expensive.
    – gnasher729
    May 5, 2022 at 20:23
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    @gnasher729, not true, you are not required to pass it on to someone else. In fact the form doesn't even require you to declare which of the two named individuals committed the infraction, but allows that you may nominate a guilty party if you choose. It is really just a demand for money. May 5, 2022 at 21:01
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    @MichaelHall, "charge" is a thing about criminal prosecutions, and this is not a crime. 46.64.015 regards an arrest – a redlight cam ticket does not involve an arrest. 46.63.030 which enables redlight cams does require either directly seeing it, or viewing data from a camera, as required by the law. I don't know whether the legislature could legally get away with issuing infractions without any human intervention.
    – user6726
    May 5, 2022 at 21:16
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    @MichaelHall please re-read the comment. You have four choices to answer (plus the nonsense choice of ticking multiple boxes, or the choice of not replying). One of these two choices means you take responsibility, one passes responsibility to someone else. I honestly can't see how you can misread that.
    – gnasher729
    May 6, 2022 at 9:22

There is an obligation on the registered owner to know who was in control of their motor vehicle. Photo infringements are sent to the registered owner (who may be an individual, more than one individual, or a company) who has two choices:

  1. Nominate the person in control of the vehicle at the relevant time who will receive their own infringement notice. That person may or may not have been driving: if they weren't they have the opportunity to nominate the driver.
  2. Pay the fine, which for a corporate owner is 5 times the fine for the offence.

There is a very limited exemption if it was unreasonable for the owner to know who was in control, for example, if the vehicle was stolen or if it was being used in an unusual way such as a shuttle and had many drivers on a single day - this would not be an excuse if that was the normal way the vehicle was operated; the owner should have implemented procedures to monitor who was driving.

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    "There is an obligation on the registered owner to know who was in control of their motor vehicle." I don't think this is true in Washington state.
    – Cody
    May 5, 2022 at 18:02
  • I was going to say the same thing. If you know this to be a fact would you please provide a reference? May 5, 2022 at 18:03
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    NAA: Question is about a case where testimony to #1 cannot be compelled even by a sitting judge in a courtroom.
    – Joshua
    May 5, 2022 at 18:37
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    @LorenPechtel it’s very dangerous to share driving and not recommend
    – Dale M
    May 6, 2022 at 9:06
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    @MichaelHall the policy of this site is that an OP can request a specific jurisdiction but answers from other jurisdictions are welcome. This is a free site. You get what you’re given. I’m sure there is a lawyer in Washington who will gladly charge you for the answer.
    – Dale M
    May 8, 2022 at 21:15

I am a Seattle resident, writing from personal experience, on vacation, with no paperwork available to cite.

No one is charged with a crime by the state of WA when a camera catches a car running a red light.

Because the state of WA cannot prove who was driving the car, the state sends you, in effect, a parking ticket. It says so, very clearly.

It is not a moving violation, it does not go on your driving record or get sent to insurance companies. (Note: not literally a parking ticket, just the same legal category.) Just as a parking ticket does not require a particular person to have been driving the car, a 'car seen in intersection against the light' does not either.

If you choose to contest this, you move it from being treated as a parking ticket to being treated as a moving violation. If you win a challenge you pay nothing, if you lose, you pay more, and you now have a moving violation.

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    May 7, 2022 at 19:40
  • I get that, but for argument's sake let's say the vehicle was involved in a crime: A recording was made of it being used as a getaway car in a bank robbery. The robbery suspects were all caught and identified later, and from the video it was clear there was only one additional person driving the car who is at large. The car is registered to a family of 6 co-owners, who live in a communal housing arrangement with several other families. Assets such as vehicles are shared, with keys hung on pegs for anyone to use as needed. Can the police blanket arrest everyone in the house? May 8, 2022 at 21:23
  • Certainly everyone with access to the car is a suspect, but there is also plenty of reasonable doubt to be cast in anyone's defense so the prosecution would need to present some evidence. May 8, 2022 at 21:26
  • I can't say that I can shed any light on the general legal questions raised by @MichaelHall. The question is, as they say, moot for a camera citation in the state of Washington, as I explained. The car's presence in the intersection makes the owner(s) liable for the civil fine, period.
    – bmargulies
    May 12, 2022 at 0:41
  • No, according to the law the operator is responsible, not the owner(s). The notice of infraction also states this clearly, and this is not in doubt. However, while there can be more than one owner, there can only be one operator (at a time). Hence my question. May 12, 2022 at 16:57

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