No green light for cameras
Legal questions remain undecided

Derek Pivnick
Red-light cameras may be unconstitutional and against state law, but Escambia County commissioners say that the benefit gained by installing them at busy intersections is too great to pass up.

They say it's about saving lives.

"I believe the upside significantly offsets the downside," Commissioner Mike Whitehead said.

The County Commission has not made a final decision on whether to install the cameras. But on Thursday, it scheduled further discussion on the topic at the March 8 committee of the whole meeting.

County Attorney Janet Lander said she is concerned that any ordinance Escambia County drafts to allow red-light cameras would be contradictory to state law. Counties aren't allowed to do that, she said.

With the cameras, a photograph is taken of a vehicle as it goes through an intersection after the light turns red. A deputy must look at the picture and verify the violation, then the vehicle's owner receives a fine through the mail.

However, state law provides that the vehicle's driver is penalized when caught running a red light by an officer. When the cameras are used, a vehicle's owner is punished.

"I do have some real concerns about this," Lander said. "This presumes guilt. Then, you go ahead and argue after the fact."

Lander also raised concerns that red-light cameras may deny someone's constitutional right to due process.

The accused have a right to face their accuser. In this case, the accuser essentially is a camera, she said.

But commissioners said they are willing to take the risk of a lawsuit that challenges the cameras, even if it means giving back all the money the red-light cameras generated.

All five commissioners expressed support for the idea.

"I think the consensus on this board is, let them sue us," Whitehead said.

"I think we have an ... obligation to enforce safety issues," Commissioner Grover Robinson said. "I don't care if Escambia County makes a dime off this."

Traffipax Traffic Safety Systems, the company that put red-light cameras at an intersection in Gulf Breeze, met with commissioners on Monday about installing cameras at no cost to Escambia County.

Gulf Breeze was the first community in the state to install red-light cameras.

Police Chief Peter Paulding lauds the cameras. He said they, along with other measures, helped reduce traffic accidents in the city by 8 percent last year.

Traffipax representative Larry Mathieson said the company installs the cameras, operates the system and sends out fines. The company makes money from fees for handling the paperwork.

County Administrator George Touart said another company contacted him this week about installing the devices. He didn't identify the other company but said a company official told him the company generated millions of dollars from red-light cameras in New York City.

"It does provide a tremendous revenue source," Touart said.

The number of communities using red-light cameras are up more than tenfold from 1999, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But according to the newspaper USA Today, the cameras face legal hurdles nationwide:

Georgia state Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Republican, has introduced a bill to ban red-light enforcement cameras in his state.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox decided last month that cameras cannot be used to ticket drivers. Only police officers who witness violations can write tickets, he said.

Minneapolis suspended its red-light camera program. Oral arguments on the case are scheduled for the state supreme court in March.

In spite of the legal challenges, many people support camera enforcement.

"I think for certain areas, it would be a good thing to do," said Pensacola resident Andrew Salter, 45. "I think it will serve its purpose."