Legal issues challenge red-light cameras


October 1, 2006

Columbia will soon join the trend of more than 100 communities that use cameras to catch people who run red lights. However, many court challenges have been filed against the use of these “photo cops.” While local officials and police cite the advantages and effectiveness of the cameras, critics have said they violate the right to privacy, the right to present a defense and the right to due process. Here’s a look at some of the challenges, along with court findings and counter-arguments.

Question: Do red-light cameras violate privacy rights protected by the First Amendment?

Answer: The Supreme Court protects the right to privacy under the First Amendment in matters concerning marriage, family and procreation. Operating a vehicle on public roads, however, doesn’t fall within those rights.

In the 2003 case Agomo v. Williams, a Washington, D.C., Superior Court held that “the fact that there are a high number of persons photographed running the traffic signal or operating at excessive speeds is an example of the magnitude of the problem facing city officials trying to correct a growing situation. Although cameras operated by the government are a concern regarding privacy issues, those concerns are outweighed by the legitimate concerns of safety on our public streets.”

Columbia Mayor Darwin Hindman, an ardent supporter of the cameras, said such enforcement systems capture only the license plate of the offender, not the driver’s image or the inside of the car. Hindman argued that surveillance cameras are widely used in public places for safety purposes and that there is a need to utilize modern techniques.

“A photograph is less invasive than a police officer pulling someone over, because the officer would see both the person and some of the interior of the car,” Hindman said.

State Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said in an e-mail response to a Missourian query that he thinks those who feel camera-based traffic monitoring is an example of “Big Brother” government have a point, but that it is a balancing act in all levels of law enforcement that must be worked through. Crowell sponsored legislation designed to reach what he thought would be an acceptable balance regarding the use of cameras at red lights. His bill would have prohibited private companies that supply the cameras from having any role in the operation of traffic lights or from profiting from citations. Crowell’s bill died, but he said he plans to file a Senate substitute to his original bill during the 2007 session.

Information compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that Missouri is one of 27 states with no state law concerning automated enforcement.

Question: Do red-light cameras violate confrontation rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment?

Answer: Columbia attorney Bob Murray said the real problem is that cameras are being used in lieu of a police officer’s observation. He argues that officers should act as witnesses who can be called to testify and be cross-examined and that citizens have a Sixth Amendment right to face an accuser, not a machine. Residents would be denied the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against them when they’re cited based on a camera’s image, he said.

“You can’t cross-examine or confront a machine,” Murray said.

Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, published an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2002 about cameras used to enforce red lights. Before teaching at UCLA, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Volokh agrees with Murray to a certain extent.

“The Sixth Amendment se*cures a criminal defendant the right to ‘be confronted with the witnesses against him,’ ” Volokh said. “That means the government can’t just bring in an affi*davit from someone saying ‘I saw Volokh kill Doe.’ It has to bring in the witness so that my lawyer can cross-examine him, and ask, for instance, where he was when he supposedly saw this, why he thought it was me, whether he might have misremembered, and so on.”

Volokh said physical evidence is admissible even though it can’t speak or be cross-examined. In a murder case, for example, a bullet proven to come from the gun used in the killing can be introduced as evidence. Of course, if the alleged killer left his driver’s license at the scene, that could be introduced. Finally, if a third party were to have videotaped the shooting, that tape could be used as evidence. Volokh said the Sixth Amendment doesn’t apply directly to the admissibility of physical evidence.

“Of course, real people who are asked to explain why the bullet matches up to my gun, or where and how the videotape was taken, or when and how the street-corner cameras were properly calibrated, must indeed appear in court, where I can cross-examine them,” Volokh said.

Question: Does the use of red-light cameras violate due process rights protected by the 14th Amendment?

Answer: According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Federal and state governments must have procedural safeguards in place to ensure that no citizen is deprived of life, liberty or property without due process.”

Murray said the use of red-light cameras denies due process. He said that machines make mistakes and that a computer system should not be relied upon to cast justice.

Hindman sees no constitutional question regarding the cameras. He said it’s important to remind people that driving is a privilege.

“All the camera does is create

evidence that a vehicle flew through the red lights,” Hindman said. “The owner of the car is presumed to be operating the vehicle. It doesn’t presume a person is guilty. It’s a way for the police to become more efficient and work on other traffic issues.”

Question: What about the delay between the violation and notification?

Answer: Concerns have been raised about the delay between the violation’s occurrence and the receipt of notice. Murray said it’s hard for people to remember weeks or months later where they were or whether they were driving at a particular moment.

“As a father, if one of my kids took the car out and ran a red light, how am I supposed to know which one of my children had the car?” Murray said. “Or when that child had the car? How are they supposed to remember where they were one month ago at a certain time?”

City Counselor Fred Boeckmann said that if the title to the automobile is in the parents’ name, they would get the ticket. At that point, it’s a family issue.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction to lessen the violations of red-light runners,” said Boeckmann.

Murray argued that it’s not fair to ticket and fine parents whose children run red lights.

“The problem here is that it shifts the burden from the city to the person,” said Murray. “It is the duty of the government to show who was operating the vehicle.”

Murray also mentioned possible problems with trying to identify people who are driving government vehicles, rental cars or automobiles from out of state.