- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

Well, you’ve got to give them an E for effort. Horace L. Bradshaw Jr. and Thomas Ruffin are attorneys who challenged the District’s practice of playing “Candid Camera” to catch speeders and red-light runners.

The pair argued that their clients’ civil rights to due process were being violated by the assumption that vehicle owners are liable until they can prove they weren’t driving at the time of the violation.

In other words, you’re guilty as charged if you are caught in the unflattering glow of a hidden photo-radar or red-light camera. That situation seems to turn the Constitution upside down.

The attorneys created a suit for the entire “class of automobile owners” ticketed since the program began in July 1999 based, in large part, on the constitutional statute that states that a U.S. citizen is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Nonsense, said D.C. Superior Court Judge Melvin R. Wright, who threw out the citizens’ challenge in a 14-page written order without a hearing.

That’s the rub: The attorneys wanted to argue the people’s case in the people’s court. Now they may never get the chance, even though the attorneys attest that they have a fair amount of public sentiment on their side. No matter, Judge Wright said the city is not in violation of due process rights as long as a car owner is given plenty of opportunity to challenge the citation. (If you get such a ticket, you can pay the $50 fine or request a hearing in the mail.) Further, the judge ruled the electronic-enforcement system is justified by its public-safety benefits.

Lots of luck in getting an unbiased hearing, contend the challengers, when you are actually assumed to be guilty by virtue of your car’s snapshot. “You’re liable when you walk into a hearing, and the judge didn’t address that in any way, shape or form,” Mr. Bradshaw told The Washington Times.

D.C. judges, as a rule, are reluctant to overturn local laws. The unspoken consensus is to support local lawmakers under the rubric of safeguarding home rule.

In his written opinion, Judge Wright reasoned that since the city does not impose criminal sanctions based on the techno-ticket, a car owner should be held liable for a civil infraction for speeding or running a red light just as the owner would be liable for a parking ticket or any other infraction caused by someone driving the vehicle with the owner’s permission.

Now, if the actual perpetrator doesn’t happen to have the owner’s permission, too bad. You’re out of luck. However, the central question of constitutionality is still not settled with regard to electronic-enforcement devices even with this D.C. case. More than likely, their legality will have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court because other jurists in other states have issued disparate rulings.

Red-light cameras have been outlawed in a half dozen states.

In Denver, a judge ruled that the legislative branch could not confer law enforcement to a private company.

In San Diego, a judge tossed out nearly 300 tickets last year, saying the city gave too much police power to the private company that administered the program. In that case it was found that the cameras had been placed at the motorists’ disadvantage.

At issue with these troublesome technology programs is whether the traffic traps are actually public-safety devices that save lives or are they cash cows for private contractors and money-grubbing governments? If local authorities want motorists to believe in the integrity of this program, they are going to have to change the way the tickets are issued, how they are reviewed and how they are challenged.

Judge Wright ruled against the challengers’ contention that money is the motivating force behind the city’s ticket-writing campaign. Since so many tickets were written, he found that the District must have had a huge problem with traffic violators.

Maybe. But maybe not. Reportedly the city has collected $21,640,820 in fines from 373,378 red-light tickets at 39 locations. Since the speed cameras went into use in August 2001, more than 561,000 tickets have been mailed, approximately 390,000 were paid and the city collected close to $29 million.

Do you think if they pick up the pace, the mayor can use some of those funds to pay for his beloved baseball stadium? The Times reported earlier that it appeared that some motorists were receiving bogus tickets sent out by reviewers who didn’t have a clear picture of the violator’s license plates. And, it looked as if it would take an act of Congress to get it quashed.

Officials in the District’s own Bureau of Traffic Adjudication have conceded “too much can go wrong the way things are now.” After the judge summarily dismissed the case, the challengers’ attorneys said they may take their case before the D.C. Council. Or they may appeal Judge Wright’s ruling.

They shouldn’t give up. The D.C. Council also needs to exercise its oversight authority and clarify the laws governing the ticket processing. “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.

Good. Nothing beats a failure but another try.

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