'Red Light' Districts Raise Civil Liberties Questions

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Local officials are sacrificing individual civil liberties to generate government revenues, some U.S. lawmakers charged on Tuesday.

Led by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, some in Congress are investigating the costs and benefits of the "photo image enforcement” mechanisms installed by many localities. 

The devices are cameras that are installed at traffic intersections to take pictures of the license plates of automobiles that are speeding or running red lights.  Violations recorded by the devices usually result in ticket citations.  The cameras are in place at intersections in at least 45 cities in the country today.

Critics of the devices testified before a House subcommittee Tuesday and said the cameras often take photos of more than the license plate number. Further, the companies that create and monitor the devices often have access to a driver's full department of motor vehicle records and aren’t required to dispose of that information once it is gained.

“There is a huge and unwarranted violation of privacy,” said Roger Hedgecock, a former mayor of San Diego and radio talk show host who testified about the red light camera situation there.

And Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., says the cameras build in a perverse incentive for the municipalities that use them.

“[The cameras] are providing a financial incentive for an entity to go out, catch people and get them convicted,” Rep. Barr said, although local municipalities and the companies that design the cameras have long denied this charge. 

The District of Columbia expects to net $117 million by 2004 from red light violations caught on camera, Rep. Barr said. As of last month, the city has collected more than $12 million from the 230,000 citations it has issued since installing the cameras in 1999.

“The glee in which certain jurisdictions, like the District of Columbia, seem to be embracing this new technology,” said Rep. Barr, would lead some to believe they have “no regard for the Constitution.”

The two leading companies operating red light cameras in local jurisdictions, IMS (a division of Lockheed Martin) and Redflex Traffic Systems of Australia, receive a portion of each paid citation that results from the photo enforcement technology. For example, IMS expects to pocket more than $44 million by 2004 in the nation’s capital.

Rep. Armey said in a statement Tuesday that “the language of greed always comes wrapped in the language of love,” and called it a “hidden tax on motorists.”

Despite civil liberties concerns, supporters of the technology point out that the devices are often embraced by local police and citizens as an effective crime-fighting tool. Five cities in Arizona, for example, have used the technology for 14 years. A 1996 survey of the system in Mesa, Arizona, found a 78 percent approval rating among the residents there.

“The problem with red light running is rampant in the United States and growing,” testified Judith Lee Stone, president for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. She and other supporters of the camera surveillance point to the 92,000 crashes and 950 deaths each year in the U.S. due to red light violations, according to federal transportation statistics.

“There is a significant body of evidence in this country and others that prove that photo image enforcement works extremely well,” she said, noting that the percentage of accidents and fatalities tend to decrease over time, as drivers become more aware of the cameras.

Washington, D.C. police spokesman Kevin Johnson claims there has been a 55 percent reduction in overall violations since the 39 cameras in the city have been put into place. “We’re are trying to protect the public and that is a goal I think everyone can share in,” he told The Washington Times recently.

But Barr says the technology “flies in the face of almost every constitutional right that we have,” in that it does not allow the driver to face his or her accuser and is presumed guilty until proving oneself innocent.

“Many people are bristling back, they find these cameras offensive, insulting and an invasion of their privacy,” testified Jim Harper, an attorney and editor of Privacilla.org. “We’re a free country and we’re free people that reject the idea of being monitored by government.”