Seeing red on cameras at lights

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 each 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 late last month and promptly rendered political stereotypes irrelevant.

In a July 31 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, such law-and-order advocates as Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a former federal prosecutor, denounced the use of automated cameras to catch red-light runners. Barr argued that such technology "eviscerates" constitutional guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures and the right to confront one's accuser.

But Washington, D.C., 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, Norton said.

Sensors trigger the red-light cameras to photograph cars that drive through red lights. But according to their critics, they pose serious problems. Instead of photographing license plates, some cameras also photograph the drivers and interiors of cars. That's an illegal invasion of privacy, they maintain.

"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," he said.

One of the most troubling aspects about red-light cameras is that they turn over a key function of law enforcement 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. "Both the government and its contractors have an immense financial stake in the violation of traffic laws," Hurley said, adding that in North Carolina, tickets cannot be appealed in court. And motorists in San Diego filed a class-action suit contending that Lockheed Martin IMS tinkered with sensors and chose intersections with fast-changing 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. Red-light cameras "are only the first installation of the Big Brother infrastructure," said Harper, editor of Privacilla.org, a Web site dedicated to privacy issues. Cameras that take snapshots of vehicles can easily be replaced with video cameras. Combined with optical character recognition and networked cameras, it would be possible to track cars as they move through cities and on highways, he said.

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