Official: Traffic cams OK, with a limit

Knoxville devices legal because officer makes final call on violations

October 12, 2006

Knoxville drivers may complain about what's fair when it comes to red-light cameras, but legally speaking, the city's use of the ever-present eyes appears to be on solid ground.

At the request of Chattanooga's city attorney, an opinion published earlier this month by the state Attorney General's Office suggests that there is a limit to delegating law enforcement duties to a private camera vendor.

Knoxville City Council approved a three-year contract with Redflex Traffic Systems in November 2005 to handle red-light enforcement - one that leaves most of the work and the bulk of citation revenues to the company.

Chattanooga city officials now are in negotiations for a similar agreement with Lasercraft Inc. to enforce traffic signal and speed limit ordinances with automated cameras.

The attorney general's opinion says that such pacts are allowed, so long as the vendor is not responsible for both verifying violations and collecting fines.

"Like the authority to levy and collect taxes, the authority and duty to provide law enforcement services is a sovereign power that cannot be delegated to a third party," the Oct. 2 opinion reads.

"On the other hand, we know of no principle that would preclude the city from entering into a contract if the purpose of such contract were merely to provide information which the city's law enforcement department could then use to decide whether and whom to cite for these traffic violations."

That's the distinction, said Knoxville staff attorney Ron Mills.

While Redflex initially reviews the footage of all possible red light runners captured on camera and is ultimately responsible for the collection of each $50 fine, a "real live" Knoxville police officer makes the final call on each violation, Mills said.

Chattanooga city attorney Randy Nelson said he recognizes that limit as well.

"All along we have insisted that a police officer make the determination," Nelson said. "It will not be up to the discretion of the company."

Mills said that city officials never requested an opinion for the attorney general ahead of the Redflex contract, although state Sen. Tim Burchett asked last year whether Knoxville's use of the cameras would be OK.

To that, a separate opinion from the AG's office said the city "can use its inherent 'police power' to enact ordinances to allow the use of video technology to enforce the city's traffic laws."

Hayes Hickman may be reached at 865-342-6323.

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