- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2001

LOS ANGELES — The nationwide rush to embrace red-light cameras has run into a rebellion in Southern California, where one city has turned off the machines temporarily and another has backed away from buying them, citing legal concerns.
The backlash comes at a time when the District plans to continue installing more red-light cameras operated by a private corporation — despite the opposition of many motorists.
The Southern California rebellion is also occurring on Capitol Hill, where critics are questioning whether the devices invade the privacy of motorists and are being used by local government, under the guise of protecting public safety, as a revenue-raising tool.
"We all lose when officers of the law are reduced to rubber stamps for the tickets handed to them by a private corporation," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, said Tuesday in testimony before a House panel studying the technology. "Our system of justice is undermined when [police] are forced to testify in court about acts they never witnessed and about machines they do not understand."
San Diego, which has used the cameras to monitor red-light running since 1998, shut down the cameras in June after police discovered that the sensors that trigger the photos were not installed in the proper locations in the intersections. The city began a 60-day study of the program this week.
In the San Diego Superior Court, meanwhile, almost 300 motorists are involved in an unusual mass challenge to the automated tickets, saying that the computer-controlled cameras — run by a private, for-profit corporation — violate their constitutional right to due process.
"We are opposed to use of automated law enforcement because an individual who is accused by a computer has absolutely no realistic way to defend themselves against those accusations," said lawyer Arthur Tait, who is leading the challenge.
Judge Ronald Styn is expected to rule whether the program is unconstitutional, as well as whether it violates some technical aspects of state law, as early as today.
In the nearby city of Mission Viejo, planning commissioners this week temporarily shelved a proposal to install red-light cameras. The commission said it would wait on moving ahead until Judge Styn delivers his ruling.
Judge Styn's decision won't have any legal effect outside of San Diego, but it is being closely watched by lawyers and government officials nationwide.
It appears to be the first time motorists have banded together in such large numbers to challenge their citations.
"No individual has the time or money to try to defend themselves against false accusations, or accusations they believe are false," Mr. Tait said. "That's what these companies and the governments are counting on, that people are going to roll over and pay their fine, whether they are innocent or not, whether there are some problems with the system or not."
California is unusual among states that use red-light cameras because the tickets issued via the cameras are considered criminal violations — like a speeding ticket issued in person by a police officer. That means motorists caught by the camera are given negative points on their driving records and the violation is reported to insurance companies.
Most states, and the District, make the red-light violations a civil matter, meaning the driver does not face further punishment by the department of motor vehicles or insurance companies.
The Department of Transportation reports that there are 345 red-light cameras in use nationwide, including in 30 cities in 19 states. So far, 11 states — none of them in the Washington Beltway area — have banned the use of red-light cameras.
Mr. Armey and other critics say local governments choose poorly designed intersections, and gratuitously shorten yellow-light cycles, to force otherwise conscientious drivers to run red lights and pay the steep fines — in California, the penalty is $271, of which $70 goes to the private contractor that runs the system.
A report by Mr. Tait's legal team concludes that the light cycles in at least two of the 19 camera-equipped San Diego intersections were shortened just prior to the devices' installation. It also reported that the number of citations went down at one intersection where the yellow-light cycle was lengthened after the cameras were put in.
"You can make these systems perfect, and there's certainly going to be some deterrent effect by having these red-light cameras," Mr. Tait told The Washington Times this week, "but I think these governments really need to decide whether it's worth it to sacrifice individual rights just to raise a little money."
Neither Lockheed Martin IMS, which runs the red-light cameras in both San Diego and the District, nor city officials would say how much the program has netted for San Diego since 1998.
D.C. officials expect to make at least $117 million off the red-light cameras by 2004, while Lockheed Martin IMS expects to make about $44 million.
The San Diego government and Lockheed Martin IMS do not deny that they put cameras at intersections where people tend to run red lights. But they vehemently deny that they are simply out to earn money or that they are tampering with the intersections to provoke drivers to run red lights.
"By definition, where there is red-light running there is a high risk of an accident. It's that simple," said Mark Maddox, spokesman for Lockheed Martin IMS. "You don't put police in the middle of nowhere. You put police where there is a likelihood of crime or some sort of police activity being needed. Well — you put red-light cameras where there is a high propensity [for] red-light runners, for whatever reason."
Sgt. Ernie Anderson, supervisor of the red-light camera program for the San Diego police, agrees.
"What I look at is, are people running the red light at an intersection? And if they're running the red light, whether it's a poorly designed intersection or not, that's still a potential accident waiting to happen and when you get thousands of people running one red light in a month, you've got a big problem," he said.
Police have no control over the yellow-light timing, he said, but all the intersections meet the accepted national standard of at least three seconds.
But even if the system isn't rigged against the driver, critics say the very idea of such automated monitoring violates the privacy of drivers and veers dangerously close to presuming that drivers are guilty of some violation.
The privacy question is particularly thorny in California, which programs the cameras to photograph the driver's face as well as the vehicle's license plate. Most states, including all of the D.C. area, simply photograph the license plate.
Mr. Maddox, however, dismisses such complaints, saying courts have consistently held that persons on the street have a lower expectation of privacy than they would at home or on private property.
"You have someone driving down a public throughway, licensed by the government, who's actually only having his picture taken if he violates the law," Mr. Maddox said, "and how you can extrapolate any kind of privacy issue is a stretch. By the same definition, you wouldn't be able to use a picture from a bank camera [against] someone who robs a bank."

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