- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

A D.C. Superior Court judge ruled yesterday that the District’s red-light and photo-radar cameras are constitutional and the benefits to public safety justify their use, despite complaints the cameras violate the civil rights of vehicle owners.

“Although cameras operated by the government are a concern regarding privacy issues, those concerns are outweighed by the legitimate concern for safety on our public streets,” Judge Melvin Wright stated in his opinion.

The judgment came in response to a class-action lawsuit filed against the city in D.C. Superior Court last summer by lawyers Thomas Ruffin Jr. and Horace L. Bradshaw Jr. The two litigators argued that the traffic-camera system violates constitutional rights to due process by assuming that vehicle owners are liable for a violation until they can prove they weren’t driving at the time of the violation.

Both lawyers expressed disappointment with the judge’s decision.

“You’re liable when you walk into the hearing, and the judge didn’t address that in any way, shape, or form,” Mr. Bradshaw said.

Mr. Bradshaw and Mr. Ruffin were representing Emelike Agomo, a Howard University student, and Auto Ward Inc., a cab-leasing company, that between them had received hundreds of dollars in photo-radar and red-light-camera tickets. The plaintiffs said a D.C. law holding them responsible for tickets involving their cars violated their rights, since they weren’t driving when the cars were ticketed.

Under the city’s automated-enforcement system, tickets are issued to car owners based on photographs of the rear license plates as vehicles speed past a radar camera or run red lights at intersections. Motorists who receive tickets have the right to either pay the fines or request hearings through the mail.

Mr. Bradshaw and Mr. Ruffin were seeking to represent the entire “class of automobile owners” ticketed since the red-light camera program began July 31, 1999, and since the photo-radar program started Aug. 6, 2001.

A lawyer for the city argued the lawsuit was baseless and theoretical, and that the two plaintiffs had never been denied due process for any of their violations.

“The difficulty here is that the plaintiffs were complaining about a general principal, but they didn’t provide anything that showed their clients didn’t get the procedural rights they were entitled to,” said Edward P. Tapstich, a lawyer with the D.C. Office of the Corporation Counsel.

Judge Wright agreed that the plaintiffs had ample opportunities to challenge the tickets, and said there is precedent for vehicle owners being cited while not operating a car that received a citation. He said vehicle owners in the District are ultimately responsible for parking tickets, for abandoned cars and for negligent use of vehicles that have been loaned to others.

Judge Wright said plaintiffs’ arguments that the cameras were primarily a revenue-generating tool for the D.C. government were “without legal support.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Judge Wright said. “If you stop at a red light, the camera is not going to catch you. … The fact that a high number of tickets are issued indicates there’s a huge problem with traffic enforcement in the District.”

Kevin Morison, director of corporate communications for the Metropolitan Police Department, acknowledged the problem with traffic enforcement and said he was “pleased” with the outcome.

“This is a good day for the law-abiding motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists in the District of Columbia,” he said. Mr. Morison said department statistics show automated enforcement is slowing down drivers while not pulling officers from patrols of city streets.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department’s Web site, www.mpdc.dc.gov, since the District began using the red-light cameras in August 1999, it has collected $21,640,820 in fines from 372,378 tickets issued at 39 locations. Since speed cameras were put into use in August 2001, more than 561,000 tickets were mailed, approximately 390,000 were paid, and the city collected close to $29 million in fines.

Mr. Bradshaw and Mr. Ruffin vowed to continue fighting the automated-enforcement system, but could not say whether they would bring another case before the court or appeal Judge Wright’s ruling.

“We’re not going to stop because I think we’re right,” Mr. Bradshaw said. “We’ve done our best and we intend to keep going.”

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