Thursday, January 06, 2005

Putting the brakes on red light cameras

My Town Council colleague Mark Kleinschmidt is quoted in today's New York Times in a story about red light cameras. A year ago this month, he and I were part of a council majority that terminated Chapel Hill's contract with Affiliated Computer Services. (Though ACS is a major player in the red light camera industry, you'll find surprisingly little about cameras on their web pages. You can, however, learn a few things from their astroturf organization, the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running.) Here is what Mark had to say:

"I disapprove of the privatization of a police function," said Mark Kleinschmidt, a city councilman in Chapel Hill, N.C., where a private contractor not only installed the camera system but also carried out the initial screening of potential violations. Last year Mr. Kleinschmidt persuaded a slim majority of his colleagues to end the program after four months.

"I don't think we should bid it out to a corporation; it's strictly a police function," he said. "Then there's this distaste in the minds of many, that the whole concept is a corporate moneymaking scheme."

If the Times reporter had called me, I would have made similar points. This is one area where commercial enterprise and a core government function just don't mix.

The other day, a superior court judge in Greensboro agreed with a High Point resident's argument that in North Carolina the red light camera project is unconstitutional because the state constitution requires that the money collected go to the public schools.

In Texas, last year the legislature voted overwhelmingly to prohibit the use of red light cameras for criminal enforcement, but in what has been called a "sneaky" move, a legislator added a provision to a different bill that would allow the cameras for civil enforcement. So now Houston is planning to use the cameras by making the violation a civil violation. But the legislature may have the last word on that too. A Harris County (Houston) representative has already filed a bill to repeal the city's authority even to use cameras for civil violations.

The enabling legislation in North Carolina (the law that the Greensboro judge has a problem with) makes the offense civil not criminal. Most places do it that way, because the camera takes a picture of the license plate not the driver: you wouldn't know for sure if you had the right criminal defendant. But that raises another problem. The "ticket" goes to the owner of the car. No points on the driver's record, no insurance points. No way to get a habitual red light runner off the road. Nothing but a $50 fine.

I'm glad that at least a few places are seeing the light.

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