April 6, 2007

Red Light On Photo-Cops

Minneapolis will have to end its use of cameras to ticket and fine drivers who run red lights and commit other infractions of traffic regulation. The state Supreme Court shut down the system in a decision yesterday, ruling that state law overrides the city's decision to use the cameras (via Mitch Berg):

The state Supreme Court agreed Thursday with the lower courts that the city's so-called PhotoCop cameras at a dozen intersections are preempted by state law and therefore illegal.

State law puts liability for traffic offenses on the driver, while the city ordinance fined the owner of a car caught running a red light.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak vowed to press on for the legalization of the cameras.

"We've proven that this makes streets safer," said Rybak, who pointed out that accidents were down 31 percent at intersections with cameras during eight months of operation. "Too many people are getting in accidents and too many pedestrians' lives are being threatened."

While a bill at the Legislature tried to resolve the conflict between state law and the city ordinance, that bill appears to be dead for this session.

That has been one of the problems with the PhotoCop system -- it penalizes car owners rather than the driver of the vehicle. Most of the time, that will be the same person, but not all of the time. Car owners have the responsibility to maintain their cars properly and register them with the state, and violations of these laws, if caught by cameras, would be more appropriate to the system. Owners should not be held responsible for moving violations committed by others, and PhotoCop cannot make that distinction.

The Supreme Court left another, more compelling argument on the table. The PhotoCop systems bypass the entire notion of innocence until proven guilt by forcing alleged violators to pay fines without having any means to confront their accusers. Normal traffic court process allows the accused to demand a trial for the offense, with the opportunity to cross-examine the witness(es). PhotoCop removes that possibilty, conferring a presumption of guilt that goes against the basic philosophy of our system of justice.

Rybak's argument of fewer accidents and deaths should be taken seriously. The solution should be a higher investment in traffic enforcement with dedicated officers patrolling the city to clamp down on violators. That would force Rybak and his city council to rethink budget priorities, rather than warping the justice system to escape that responsibility.


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Comments (26)

Posted by Gwedd [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 7:16 AM


Let's not forget the financial incentives to keep this camera system in operation. I cannot comment on this particular system, having not researched it specifically, but virtually ALL of these systems are operated by a commercial enterprise for the benefit of the city that purchases it.

These ventures own and install the systems, and then operate them, and also collect the funds. they then give a certain percentage to the city. In some cases, the city collects the funds, and then turns over a certain percentage to the company. Regardless, it's wrong.

As you point out, there is no presumption of innocence, no means of appeal. It is simply a cash generator for both the city and the company, and can maximise profits for both due to the low overhead involved.

Therein lies the danger. The success of systems like this in generating funds will embolden both the governmental bodies and the companies that develop these technologies to look for similar venues of cash generation.


Posted by Doc Neaves [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 7:33 AM

I disagree. I think these are the greatest thing possible. There is no possible "presumption of innocence" because that principle only works until the "innocence" has been proven not to be so, which, in the case of these cameras, is the ONLY thing that starts them rolling in the first place. The evidence is incontrovertible, so there is no presumption of innocence. The only defence left is that the owner is not driving the vehicle at the time and place, clearly given, and on the form, you get the chance to say so. You give the person's name that you loaned the car to, or who was driving it if it was your spouse or child or parent, and they then charge THEM, not the owner. It simply puts the onus of deciding guilt on the owner of the car. Pay it yourself, or find who you loaned the car to and make them the guilty party.
I can't believe you'd rather have a crooked cop's opinion on the stand about an incident that was months ago, possibly a year or more ago, instead of reliable video tape eyewitness.
As to another agency doing this, it's called outsourcing, a result of our economy's age. Read all about it, search for "Fractured Economy". It's hardly a new idea. At this stage, the small entities will start to outperform large corporations, and more and more outsourcing will enhance (exacerbate?) this effect. The only thing that should be made illegal about it is when they manipulate the timing of the light signals to generate revenue. There should be a standard setting for the length of a yellow light, or a standard ratio for duration/speed limit maybe.

Posted by Sabba Hillel [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 7:38 AM

However many places have the yellow set so that the camera will be triggered by cars that are too close to the intersection to stop before it turns red. Accidents have been caused by people trying to slam on the brakes too fast. Then they wind up over the line and get caught by the camera anyways. Also, cars waiting to make a left turn in the intersection are often caught by the camera and the owner fined.

Posted by lomar1234 [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 7:56 AM

When DC put the cameras in there was a bit of a fuss. Not all the most dangerous intersections were used, just ones were the $ would be bigger. Opponents of cameras tout evidence that cameras cause more accidents (rear-enders) from people braking like maniacs and show how increasing yellow light length of time does more good. The money DC made was too much to pass up though. It's not a major violation, but it does assume your guilt unless you rat out someone else.

Posted by biwah [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 7:57 AM

Doc Neaves:

But the problem is that the state is issuing the summons on a case that it has no chance of proving beyond a reasonable doubt. As far as I can tell, anyone who shows up to contest will win because the state cannot prove its case as to that driver. Therefore, sending out thousands of unprovable citations is an unconstitutional trawling expedition.

Now, in a civil context, perhaps a vehicle can rack up violations so that (based on a point system?) when it comes time to renew registration, extra fees have to be paid. That does not seem unreasonable, as long as the fines are lower and (strict liability, where the standard of proof is effectively lower, and civil fines, always entail lower penalties than criminal intent-based offenses). It would create a sub-criiminal, administrative tier of strict-liability enforcement - which, most importantly, people would still try to avoid by driving sensibly.

Posted by Andy [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 8:22 AM

I thought I remembered reading on Instapundit about red light cameras that, on average, before the cameras are installed, yellow lights last about 5 seconds, and after the cameras are installed, the yellow lights on average last about 2.9 seconds. Cameras are designed to make money for the city, and shortening the yellow light has no value other than to try and catch more drivers so you can send them a bill. Total BS.

Posted by Andy [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 8:28 AM

Also, Doc Neaves, so what if as the owner you can check a box saying you weren't driving? All the other guy has to do is say "No I wasn't" and then it becomes he said/she said (or he/he or she/she depending) and then what happens? Not to mention the potential for abuse that way, either.

I suppose we should go for the Scandivanian model and put GPS in our cars that make sure we can't exceed the speed limit, too, huh? You're the only person I've ever heard, or read, who thinks red light cameras are a good idea.

Posted by D F Eyres [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 8:32 AM

Doc Neaves,

In 90% of the cases in which a child is murdered, the culprit turns out to be a parent. Using your logic, the police are therefore justified in immediately arresting the parents of any murdered child. After all, the only reason that the investigation got started was because there was incontrovertable evidence (a dead child), and of course, the parents will have the chance to say that they didn't do it.

What you are forgetting is that there is always- absolutely always- a presumption of innocence. Your statement that "There is no possible "presumption of innocence" because that principle only works until the "innocence" has been proven not to be so" is precisely the opposite of how the US legal system works, of what the US Constitution says. To be blunt- that is such a basic misunderstanding that if you are a US citizen, you should sue your civics teachers for malpractice. (The right to sue anything for anyone is unfortunately well-established legal principle.)

Posted by TomB [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 8:41 AM

There are a lot of Wacos running red lights out there (see 2 - 5 per day myself). There is however many problems with automated penalty generators. One is "efficiency", meaning it can generate many "caughts", then the choice is to pay, or lose a day in court, guilty or not. Then there is the relying on plates ONLY to identify the culprit (I can imagine making my own fake plates and screw somebody owing similar car quite badly at only minimal risk to myself).
So how's about if City would be paying AUTOMATICALLY all the costs AND DOUBLE punitive damages to all NOT convicted?

Posted by NoDonkey [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 8:53 AM

Red light cameras are just the symptoms of governments that want to do everything for everybody, but that can't even marginally perform their basic duties.

Daily, I see people make maneuvers that I would not have seen, just 10 years ago.

I'm not sure what you have to do to get a driver's license besides fogging a mirror and forking over some dough, but it ain't much.

MPeople die DAILY on the roads and we have bureaucrats hot and heavy about trendy issues like smoking in bars, of all the idiotic things.

Posted by Cousin Dave [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 9:00 AM

The dirty little secret about these systems is that they are almost universally viewed, both by city governments and by the companies that market them, not as safety enhancers but as revenue generators. There are too many incentives to do things with them that are counter-productive to the stated goals of safety and traffic efficiency. As Andy said, posting systems at the busiest intersections and shortening yellow lights is one. In a large intersection, such as one that straddles an interstate overpass, yellows may be shortened to the point where it is impossible to clear the intersection before the light turns red, especially if one is turning left. An additional tactic is to shorten the cycle time of the lights. More reds in a given period of time means more chances to catch violators (hence more revenue), but adding cycles decreases the efficiency of traffic flow and creates more opportunities for accidents.

Another, more straightforward and devious methid is to simply set the system to trigger on the yellow light. I know of at least one incident where this was done; I'll have to go Google for the reference. But if the city or state defines the photo system's evidence as prima facie, which they sometimes do, an unscrupulous city or system operator can do this and the people who are wrongly accused have no legal means of challenging it. Essentially, it becomes an illegally collected tax on driving.

Posted by Cousin Dave [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 9:10 AM

Here's a link to a Usenet article that quotes a Los Angeles Times article about an illegally configured photo system at a very busy intersection in downtown LA (I can't get into the LAT's Web archives to find the original):


It was set up to photo drivers who were legally going through the intersection on the yellow. The City of Los Angelese had to refund or forgive about a half-million dollars in fines on account of this. The interesting bit is that this isn't the incident that I was thinking of; the one I recall wasn't in LA. So here's a second one that I didn't know about. I wonder how many more there have been...

Posted by Sapper [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 9:39 AM

GREAT thread, Ed.

I just blogged about this last weekend. I wish Arizona would do away with them too.



Posted by VA Gamer [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 9:40 AM

Y'all have made many good comments here about the legality of red-light cameras. All of you, though, are approaching this from a driver's perspective.

I live in Washington, DC, and I walk daily. I see someone run a red light at almost every single intersection. When I say run a red light, I mean that they do not even start into the intersection until the light has turned red. I see it so often that I expect it, but many people visiting DC start to walk when the signal changes. I have seen countless near misses and several accidents.

For all of its faults, the red-light camera does cut down greatly the number of red-light runners. What would you replace that with? Captain, you suggested higher investment in traffic enforcement with dedicated officers patrolling the city to clamp down on violators.

How will we pay for this? We do not have enough cops to patrol the streets to deal with legitimate crime. I think it is impractical to think that we can re-allocate police resources.

How would y'all feel about doubling or tripling the fine for red-light running. If the penalty was $500-$750, and it was enforced frequently enough that it actually made people think while they are driving, I wonder if this would have a positive effect.

Posted by biwah [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 10:09 AM

VA, I agree it's important to do this somehow, but legally. What about simply repositioning the cameras to some point across the street to get a head-on picture. Obviously some photos might leave doubt about identity and it wouldn't work at night...oh, forget it, maybe...

Posted by NoDonkey [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 10:28 AM

I live in the DC area too and agree you take your life in your hands, just to cross the street. People are regularly being run over by DC Metro buses, BTW, and those are run BY the govt.

If traffic fines aren't high enough to hire additional traffic patrolmen, then the govts should raise them. It's ridiculous that we have to drive within scenarios that are straight out of Grand Theft Auto, just because our politicians will not do what's necessary to keep them safe.

Talk about being "distracted". Local and state governments are not performing basic tasks, like keeping dangerous drivers off of the road, because they're trying to perform far too many functions of the nanny state.

Cameras are just gadgetry. Points are not even assessed. The problem drivers probably just ignore the notices, in any case.

Posted by Monique [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 12:32 PM

For those in the DC area, like myself, the cameras are everywhere and pedestrians do get run over at an alarming frequency - we hear about them almost every night. My comment isn't so much about the cameras but about the pedestrians. I walk a good portion of the way to work (after taking the Metro to the closest stop). At almost every single intersection, pedestrians fail to properly yield the right of way to drivers. In fact, many times I see people wait on the sidewalk until they get the "red hand" and then they cross! Personally, that is probably my #2 pet peeve. I don't think the cameras help that much and agree with an earlier comment that longer yellows would be much better.

Posted by NoDonkey [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 1:11 PM

As far as pedestrians, the Post has run several articles on how unfortunate it is that so many immigrants are getting run over.

Then the article mentioned how a man was run over crossing I-395 at night. (you mean we don't have crosswalks on Interstates?).

I don't know how many times I've seen women with young children, crossing a four or even a six lane street.

In their defense, even if you can get to a crosswalk in this area (cars usually stop square in the middle of them), there's no guarantee that drivers will stop, even if you have the light.

And what happens if they run over you in the crosswalk? You'll be in the right, but dead or in the hospital, and the driver will get at most a slap on the wrist.

It's anarchy on the streets out there and government apparently has no interest in anything more than token enforcement of the laws, and at best, cleaning up after accidents.

Posted by Cousin Dave [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 2:05 PM

VA, I understand where you are coming from. I'm not opposed to the existence of any technological solution. My contention is that the existing systems are woefully inadequate as far as producing evidence that meets courtroom standards, and that the jurisdictions using them have "fixed" the probelm by simply stripping the defendent of his/her rights.

Consider about 25 years ago, when there was a big scandal in Florida involving speeding tickets that were prosecuted using instant-on traffic radar. An inquisitive investigative reporter found that he could get readings of excess speed on the radar by simply pointing the gun at his car's air conditioner fan. That reading would be locked in by the gun, and an unscrupulous trooper who knew the trick could then pull over any random motorist and hit them with a ticket. Since courts considered the radar gun reading incontravertible, no defense was possible.

After this story started appearing on state and national news, Florida judges stopped accepting radar gun readings as evidence in traffic cases. Eventually, the standard of evidence worked out was that the gun had to produce a time trace of the approaching car, showing its speed as it approached and as it passed the radar, which should produce a characteristic curve on a graph. This is much harder to fake than a single reading from an instant-on radar, and it made much better evidence: The trooper, if challenged, could show the car's speed initially, variations as it approached the radar, perhaps the driving braking as he realized the radar was on him, etc. Much more convincing in court.

What needs to be done with the red-lignt systems is similar. Instead of a mere time-stamped photo of a license plate, what the system needs to do is capture a time-coded video clip of the car approaching and going through the intersection, with the moment-to-moment status of the light superimposed (preferably by having a second camera that focuses on the actual light). Another camera needs to shoot through the windshield to capture, as best as possible, an image of the driver's face. Besides being generally more convincing, the video demonstrates that the light is timed properly (or not); it distinguishes borderline sitautions and system malfunctions from obvious violations, it shows if there were any extenuating circumstances, and it provides a means to identify the actual driver.

Of course, the catch is that it would require someone to actually look at the videos to determine which incidents deserve tickets and which don't. Plus, there would have to be some work done to identify the driver if that wasn't the owner of the vehicle. (Start by pulling up the drivers' license photo of the registered owner from a database, and have someone look at it to see if it is a match. If not, contact the owner and show him the video and let him identify the driver. If he refuses, and if the car hasn't been reported stolen, ticket the owner for allowing a careless driver to operate his vehicle.) The problem is, of course, is that even though such a system would actually be a safety improvement, it wouldn't be as good a revenue generator. We all know which of those two things the governments that are using these systems prefer. Sigh.

Posted by SwabJockey05 [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 2:45 PM

Cuz Dave,

"Your system" would indeed be much better...thousands of more cameras capable of High Fidelity photos of drivers etc...as a bonus, imagine all the extra “crimes” that could be prevented/punished. Get enough cameras and enough analysts/software/computers to rifle through the photos and I think you’d be surprised how much “crime prevention” you can create.

Who would support this plan? I wonder if any of them would be the same moonbats crying about the government *spying* on us by listening to overseas phone calls?

You and others make a GREAT point on the *real* purpose of the cameras: revenue.

No Donk. You bring up good points too. The only time I don't ride my motorcycle, is when I have to go through the "District". Driving anything smaller than a Lincoln is asking for it. A sane ORM "DC Driving" analysis would probably result in everyone driving armored Hummers. Complete with mounted .50 cal/grenade launcher.

Posted by Bostonian [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 3:39 PM

Once upon a time, I heard that San Francisco had a far greater fatality rate than Boston for pedestrians being hit by cars. (I'm not talking about Boston highways, mind you.)

This is easy to explain, actually. If you have enough potholes, narrow streets, lousy signage, and a layout based on cow paths of the 18th century, you can slow down traffic to the point where hitting a pedestrian isn't too likely to hurt 'em.

But somehow I doubt DC would want to address its pedestrian accident rate in that way.

Posted by Jim [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 6, 2007 5:06 PM

We've had something similar to Photo-cop in Denver for several years now. I'm not sure how they got around the right to face your accusor issue, but they have. In my opinion, it's one of the biggest miscarriages of justice I've ever seen.

Jim C

Posted by DaveK [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 7, 2007 2:19 AM

The issue is complicated, but the fact is that Photo-Cop systems actually work to reduce violations. On the other hand, the current use of traffic cameras for enforcement has some serious due process issues... which I think could be solved.

The problem is that virtually all the Photo-Cop violations are considered to be low-level crimes, and by being handled as such require that the defendant be presumed innocent until proven guilty in court. If you could change the process to administrative, rather than criminal, everything changes. Under administrative process, you do not have the right to be presumed innocent, though you do have rights of appeal... If you make sure that the ordinary administrative process will not result in "points" being taken from your license, or somehow being added to your driving record, I don't see the problem.

n other words, if the car was involved in something illegal, the burden of the administrative fine would fall on the owner of the car, but should not ordinarily result in the imposition of penalties that presume the owner was actually the driver.

Yes, any administrative system like this is open to abuses... but so is any type of enforcement system. That is why we have rights to appeal these type of government actions.

And if you don't think the government can possibly use the "administrative process" to get around the criminal due-process requirements, just look at what the IRS does all the time with seizure of property and assets.

Just my $.02

Posted by Doc Neaves [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 9, 2007 3:49 AM

Sorry for not defending myself, and not that anyone is still reading this thread, but, frankly, you're a bunch of idiots for thinking that cameras are your problem.
First, the evidence IS incontrovertible, and THAT is what takes away the supposition of innocence. YOUR vehicle went through that light, whether it was you or not. That is in no doubt. And it is not a "picture", it is a video. You can clearly see the light changing and the car running over the first white line BEFORE the light turns red. It doesn't catch people at yellow lights unless it is set wrong, and it if is, it is clear in the video, and you will merely have to show it. Now, if it had been a cop, what would your defence have been? His opinion would stand. Now, however, you have the video that shows your tires were juuuuust across the line when the picture was taken. Of course, if it's set right, you'll never get that ticket, but if you do, it's easy to beat. The video can't lie, and I think THAT's the real reason you don't like them.
More accidents because people are trying to stop? They are supposed to stop, it is the guy who runs into them that's in the wrong, not the camera.
You guys are blaming governments for doing things that they aren't doing. Some cities have abused it. Some cities have had problems from the companies abusing it, but those are returned, the lights changed. How? BECAUSE YOU HAVE THE VIDEO IN ORDER TO TIME THE LIGHT WITH. You can just say to the judge, hey, I think the light was a little short there, and fight with the cop, or you can just SHOW THE VIDEO.
What part of this can't you morons understand? It's not a privacy issue, you're already in public. You don't get caught unless YOU are guilty, or unless you car is, in which case you should know who was driving your car. If you can't keep control of your vehicle, then you shouldn't be trusted with a license because YOU'RE OBVIOUSLY AN IDIOT. I'm the first to stand on privacy issues, but this just has no ground for that claim whatsoever.

Posted by Doc Neaves [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 9, 2007 3:58 AM

And you can't make fake plates that will work, unless you also have the same year, make, model, and color of the car you're trying to imitate. Anyone with any brains knows this.
And DFEyres, ninety percent of all kid killers are parents? What planet do YOU live on? It's less than half, and that principle has NOTHING to do with red light cameras, anyway. Of course, if we'd caught someone killing the kid on video, but couldn't see the face, only the license plate, I guarantee you morons would be screaming "GET HIM!!" The fact of that video would be used as evidence of your crime. In that case, if the kid was killed and we see the parents car driving away, fine, go arrest the parents and INVESTIGATE, but that still doesn't make them guilty, you're right, but it WOULD make the cops want to know who had their car. Same thing here. Your car gets a ticket, you should have known who had your vehicle.

Posted by answerdots [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 11, 2007 6:40 PM

There is a way to legally beat these cameras:

A majority of red light & speed cameras utilize strong flash to photograph the license plate on your car. Once sprayed on your license plate, PhotoBlocker’s special formula produces a high-powered gloss that reflects the flash back towards the camera. This overexposes the image of your license plate, rendering the picture unreadable.