- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

WEST MEON, England — He hands out calling cards describing his vocation as “Freelance Troublemaker and Old Car Nut.”

But this eccentric Englishman is pursuing a very serious legal case that could hinder or even end the use of speed cameras on Britain’s roadways.

Idris Francis contends that roadside cameras, which capture images of speeding cars so the drivers can be penalized, make the roads more dangerous. Among other things, he says, drivers who spot the cameras brake suddenly and take their eyes off the road to look at their speedometers.

He has brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights that could threaten the use of about 6,000 speed cameras — also known as photo radars — on highways, streets and lanes across Britain.

His specific point of law is this: Forcing a car owner, under threat of criminal penalties, to reveal who was driving his car when it was speeding breaches that person’s right to remain silent. It violates what in the United States is the Fifth Amendment, which says no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself” — a right against self-incrimination that exists in Britain as well.

“This is obtaining confessions under duress,” Mr. Francis said.

The European Court of Human Rights heard the case this fall. Observers say there is no telling when a decision will be rendered.

Robert Hall, a spokesman for Britain’s Department for Transport, declined comment.

“We don’t want to prejudice the case,” he said.

If Mr. Francis’ argument is determined to have merit, the result could alter policing in the United States, as well.

The U.S. Supreme Court in the past has cited a decision of the European Court of Human Rights as a precedent. And speed cameras have been used on a limited basis by police in Arizona, California, Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and the District of Columbia, according to the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Speed cameras were first used in 1992 in Britain. The number of cameras has mushroomed particularly in the past five years. They are much reviled and often vandalized. They have been run over, burned, painted, shot and mutilated — some of them several times.

In addition, the speed cameras contribute to the debate over privacy in a country that has more surveillance cameras — an estimated 4 million — per capita than any other. It has been estimated that the average Londoner is caught on camera 500 to 600 times every day.

Mr. Francis, a 66-year-old retired company owner — he invented the joysticks that control most electric wheelchairs — has been fighting for five years against what some might consider a trivial charge.

His case began in 2001, when a camera in the southern English city of Guildford caught his beautifully restored 1938 Alvis doing 47 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone.

Mr. Francis, as the owner, was sent a notice demanding that he say who was driving at the time. Pleading guilty would have cost him 60 British pounds, about $113.

In an interview, Mr. Francis made no bones about it: He was the driver.

But he was determined not to incriminate himself to authorities. He refused to answer. For that refusal, he was fined, including court costs, nearly $1,900.

He lost his case in the British courts and had to pay. But he handed over the money with a note attached, saying, “Look after it, because I’ll be back for it.”

He consulted a lawyer, who told him it would cost about $38,000 to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. The court enforces the European Convention on Human Rights.

“I gulped and thought about it and said yes,” Mr. Francis recalled.

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