Red-light cameras at the crossroads

In Howard County, Md., red-light cameras are credited with reducing collisions

at intersections by as much as 44 percent.

But in San Diego, the cameras are on trial for "shaking down" thousands

of motorists with $271 fines that funneled more than $7 million into city

coffers and generated about $2 million for contractor Lockheed Martin IMS.

Highway safety expert Judith Stone says red-light cameras are lifesavers.

But privacy specialist Jim Harper says they are the cornerstone of an ominous

surveillance society.

The growing debate about red-light cameras vs. privacy — and technology

vs. the Constitution — arrived on Capitol Hill July 31 and promptly rendered

political stereotypes irrelevant.

In a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit,

such conservative law-and-order advocates as Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a former

federal prosecutor, denounced the use of automated cameras to catch motorists

that run red lights. Barr argued that such technology "eviscerates" constitutional

guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures and for the right

to confront one's accuser.

But liberal Washington, D.C., congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes

Norton defended the decision to install red-light cameras in the District

of Columbia, arguing that police are overwhelmed by more serious crimes

and need whatever help they can get from technology. When the cameras are

properly used, they do not invade privacy, the Democrat said.

Sensors trigger the red-light cameras to photograph cars that drive

through red lights. But according to their critics, the cameras pose serious

problems. Instead of photographing license plates, some cameras also photograph

drivers and interiors of cars, which critics say is an illegal invasion

of privacy.

"At no point in the past two centuries has Americans' right to privacy

been more threatened," Barr declared. "At traffic intersections in cities

large and small, Americans are being watched, their movements recorded,

their persons and surroundings photographed and their actions documented

by their government."

One of the most troubling aspects of red-light cameras is that they

turn a key function of law enforcement over to private contractors, said

Marshall Hurley, a Greensboro, N.C., lawyer.

"Red-light surveillance cameras combine the worst traits of government

arrogance and corporate greed," he told subcommittee members. In many localities,

"the camera schemes are based on the concept of a government kickback,"

in which companies that supply and operate the cameras collect a portion

of the fines.

In North Carolina, it's $35 of each $50 fine. In San Diego, it's $70

of each $271 fine.

In North Carolina, tickets cannot be appealed in court, Hurley said.

And in San Diego, motorists have filed a class-action suit contending that

contractor Lockheed Martin IMS tinkered with sensors and selected intersections

with short yellow lights to maximize the number of motorists who could be

ticketed.

Lockheed Martin Corp. announced July 19 that it is selling the IMS subsidiary

to Affiliated Computer Services Inc.

Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.) denounced red-light cameras as "a bounty

system" and "clearly unconstitutional." The cameras violate Fourth Amendment

protections against unreasonable search and seizure and 14th Amendment guarantees

of due process and equal protection under the law, he said.

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