Battle lines form over red-light cameras

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

at inter.sections 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 to contractor Lockheed Martin IMS.

Highway safety expert Judith Stone is adamant that red-light cameras

are lifesavers.

But privacy specialist Jim Harper warns that they are the foundation

for a surveillance society.

There is a growing debate about red-light cameras vs. privacy and

technology vs. the Constitution and it is creating some unexpected political

partnering on Capitol Hill. For example, in a hearing before the House Subcommittee

on High.ways and Transit in July, such conservative 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" con.stitutional guarantees against unreasonable searches and

seizures and the right to confront one's accuser.

But liberal 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 to catch traffic violators. When the cameras

are properly used, they do not invade privacy, Norton contended.

Sensors trigger red-light cameras to take photographs of cars that drive

through red lights. But according to their critics, they 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," he said.

One of the most troubling aspects about the use 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. "Both the government and its contractors have an immense

financial stake in the violation of traffic laws," he said.

And in North Carolina, tickets cannot be appealed in court, he added.

"There is the presumption that the owner of the motor vehicle is guilty

if his or her car is photographed by a red-light camera. A financial penalty

is imposed based on an absolute presumption of guilt without any judicial

review."

In San Diego, motorists who have been ticketed 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. an.nounced in July that it is selling IMS to Affiliated

Computer Services Inc.

Former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock, now a radio talk show host,

denounces red-light cameras for increasing the number of rear-end collisions

as motorists make sudden stops for short yellow lights. Hedgecock said he

wrecked his car when he rammed the back end of a truck that "jammed on his

breaks as the traffic light turned yellow" at a camera-equipped intersection.

Lengthening the time for yellow lights would cut red-light running as

effectively as installing red-light cameras, Hedgecock contends, adding

that a study by the city of Tempe, Ariz., reached the same conclusion. "But

here's the rub." Tempe also hired Lockheed Martin IMS to install red-light

cameras at a number of intersections, and "the Lockheed Martin contract

prevents the city of Tempe from extending the yellow light interval where

Lockheed's cameras are in place," he said.

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.

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.

Add databases, and it becomes possible to create permanent records of

the movements of autos.

There could be benefits, however. Carjackings might be reduced if criminals

knew they could be tracked. Missing persons might be more easily found,

Harper said.

And auto safety advocates boil at the idea that technology they consider

lifesaving could be discarded.

More than 750 people are killed each year in crashes involving red-light

runners, said Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto

Safety. "Opposition [to red-light cameras] seems like a double standard

to me."

Stone cites statistics to show that red-light cameras work. When cameras

were installed, red-light running was reduced by 68 percent in San Francisco;

92 percent in Los Angeles County; 70 percent in Charlotte, N.C.; and 44

percent in Fairfax County, Va., she said.

"We know red-light cameras work," Stone told the House subcommittee.

Moreover, the public overwhelmingly supports them, she said. Recent polls

show public support as high as 83 percent. "The American public is both

ready and anxious for us to act on its behalf to keep families safe," Stone

said.

Some argue that privacy vanished long ago. People are routinely monitored

by surveillance cameras in stores, they leave detailed paper trails by using

credit cards and supermarket discount cards, and they leave electronic trails

by making phone calls and using the Internet.

But much of that is the private sector snooping and is less serious

than snooping by the government, Harper maintains. "Governments are the

only entities in society with legal power to enter our homes without permission,

take our possessions and imprison us," he said.

"We are a free country and a free people who reject the idea of being

monitored by government when we are going through our daily lives peacefully

and lawfully," Harper said.

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