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Red Light Cameras Deemed Unconstitutional: It’s a ‘Perverse’ Financial Ploy

Red-light cameras are the cause of great distress and annoyance for many motorists. They have been installed in at least 24 states. While these cameras are a revenue boon for governments across the nation, their intrusion into daily life is disturbing and their constitutionality has now being called into question, according to The Hill.

According to legal experts, the use of these cameras violates the Sixth Amendment. The Confrontation Clause grants criminal defendants the right to be confronted with the witnesses against them. Since it is a camera and not a person who witnessed the offense, such violations generally cannot be considered a criminal offense. The ticket is issued to the owner of the vehicle, not to the person driving it, leaving a lack of certainty as to the identity of the offender.

Therefore the “ticket” in most places is nothing more than a civil fine, making enforcement and collection difficult. To date, governments have avoided this problem by requiring payment of the fine before motorists can renew their driver’s license or auto registration. Although there generally are appeals procedures, they typically do not give drivers a day in court. In other words, what happened to being innocent until proven guilty?

As noted by The Hill, there are several for-profit companies that install and operate the cameras, some of them foreign owned. In a typical arrangement, a camera company will contract with a local government to pay the capital cost of installing the cameras in exchange for a share of the revenue generated via fines. In short, governments get a new revenue stream without any operating cost and the camera companies make a tidy profit.

The companies and government officials argue that greater safety will result from fewer accidents and that the increased government revenue will benefit the local communities.

However, there is more evidence that greater public safety actually depends on yellow and red light timing. Longer yellow and all-way red times have been shown to significantly reduce accidents. Sometimes local governments actually decrease yellow light timing to catch more red-light runners, a result of the perverse financial incentives that tempt government officials and camera companies. Studies also show motorists are more likely to hit the brakes hard at camera-enforced intersections, increasing rear-end collisions.

Most citations for speed and red-light cameras are simply civil fines. The offender essentially has no recourse in court. The financial incentive creates a conflict of interest for local elected officials and camera companies to game the system in their favor. These factors can undermine citizens’ faith in government and breed mistrust.

We are brought up to respect the legal system that was handed down to us through English Common Law. We expect the laws to be just and fairly applied. We expect to always have recourse in the courts. And most importantly, we always expect to be treated equally before the law. Speed and red-light cameras are contrary to those expectations.

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