Surprised state lawmakers learned Thursday that the photo enforcement cameras they authorized last year to catch speeders are actually taking - and keeping - videos of everyone who passes.
The information came out as a House panel debated legislation to outlaw the operation of fixed and mobile cameras on state roads. Backers of the legislation complained that the cameras are really designed to generate revenue and not to improve public safety.
But they learned that the cameras do more than snap still photos of those clocked driving at least 11 miles over the speed limit. In fact, they actually are recording streaming video around-the-clock.
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said what's worse is that Redflex Traffic Systems, the private company hired by the state to set up and operate the cameras, advertises that it has technology that actually can scan in the license plates of every vehicle that passes the cameras. And that, Biggs said, allows creation of a database that can find out where people have been at any given time.
Biggs said there is no expectation of privacy on public roads.
"But this is more invasive than ever experienced," he said.
Foes of photo enforcement weren't the only ones who appeared troubled by the revelation.
Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, voted to keep the system alive, saying he believes it saves lives. But Meyer said lawmakers need to address the issue of whose photos are taken and kept by the government.
"That absolutely concerns me," he said.
Rep. Sam Crump, R-Anthem, said he crafted HB2106 because last year's legislation authorizing the Arizona Department of Public Safety to set up the cameras never got a full debate. Instead, it was tucked into the state budget, a move he said was designed more to raise money to pay for various programs than to actually benefit public safety.
DPS Cmdr. Thomas Woodward said the evidence shows that when the cameras went up, both the number and severity of accidents went down.
Crump said he doesn't believe that to be the case.
But the discussion quickly turned after Woodward revealed that Redflex had actual around-the-clock videos from each of the fixed and mobile cameras. Biggs said that little bit of information has been kept from both lawmakers and the public.
"At the bare minimum, everybody should be made privy to the fact that if you're driving on everybody's highways we're taping you, 24/7, and we're going to hold it for 90 days," he said.
DPS Lt. James Warriner said there's a legitimate reason for doing the recording and keeping the tapes. He said they have proven useful in finding hit-and-run drivers and even in identifying someone who stole a motorcycle.
Warriner said the videos are for law enforcement use only and not a public record.
Biggs, however, said that doesn't mean others won't be able to access those tapes.
He said that information might prove useful to attorneys or private investigators in civil or divorce cases who might seek to prove to a court that someone was not where he or she was supposed to be.
Warriner conceded the videos could, in fact, be used that way if a lawyer could get a subpoena.
"If a judge signs off on that and orders us to release it, we're going to have to release it," he said. But Warriner said such a court order would have to be issued within 90 days of the event or there would be nothing for his agency to produce.
Warriner said, though, his agency is willing to stop the around-the-clock taping if that is what lawmakers want.
"We are acting under what the legislators gave us last year," he said. "If they see fit to make changes, we'll go out and do it. We just want to keep the program because we know it's making an impact on lives and the public."
At this point, the future in doubt, the committee voted 5-2 to kill the program which, in turn, would eliminate the videos.
Meyer voted against the bill, saying his main concern is public safety.
"I'm approaching this from my history of service in the emergency department (of hospitals) where I see the result of the accidents that occur on a freeway," he said. "These systems seem to dramatically reduce the number of accidents and increase the safety of our freeways."
Meyer said the program could be saved - and some of the objections addressed - by altering the laws governing how the photo enforcement system is operated, including the use of the video cameras.
An aide to Gov. Jan Brewer said she was studying the contract - as well as how the photo enforcement system was adopted as part of the budget process - before deciding whether it should be canceled.