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Automated Justice
August 13, 2001

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to Newsmax.com

Roger Hedgecock, former San Diego mayor and talk show host for KOGO radio, has launched a movement against what he and his allies view as an invasion of privacy that is taking place in that city.

Attorney volunteers are representing hundreds of defendants who have received citations for alleged violations that were caught on film by automated cameras positioned at red lights. Lawyers are disputing the constitutionality of the city's use of such surveillance devices and their application to ticketing.

Hedgecock tells NewsMax that the trial in this matter brought out some startling information on the reliability and legality of this kind of mechanized justice. San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald Styn indicated that he was going to decide, no later than Aug. 1, whether or not to dismiss the 290 red light camera citations before him on constitutional and other grounds. He was also to decide on a motion to have the cameras removed. As of yet, no decisions have been made, and the matters are still pending.

The city has been nurturing this technology for a significant period of time. What began as a pilot program five years ago and involved extensive research concerning safety has evolved into a kind of "public/private partnership" between San Diego and Lockheed Martin IMS, the company that operates the cameras.

In an unusual relationship, one that is being emulated in numerous other cities across the United States, Lockheed Martin pays for the installation and monitoring of the cameras. The company is then compensated on a percentage basis. For example, in San Diego it receives $70 of every $271 fine that is paid on a given automated red light violation. (It seems that the arrangement has the potential of being extremely profitable. According to securities filings, Lockheed recently sold its operation for $825 million.)

Although the justification given for utilization of this process is to improve traffic safety, Hedgecock tells NewsMax these cameras have yet to be placed in the most dangerous jurisdictions, according to studies that were previously done. Instead the cameras have been placed in intersections that constitute "citation traps." These are corners where yellow lights appear to have been shortened in a manner that could generate greater revenue for the city.

The San Diego case raises dozens of questions that involve broad constitutional issues. In dealing with this particular type of technology and pragmatic application, Judge Styn will be forced to confront matters that relate to due process, equal protection, invasion of privacy, conflict of interest, right to confront accusers, and a host of other legal issues.

Different jurisdictions are attempting to address the public relations aspects of the technology in a variety of ways. In Fort Collins, Colo., an automated citation is treated as the functional equivalent of a parking ticket as opposed to a moving violation, and therefore does not carry the same degree of weight against a driver's record. In some municipalities, the registered owner of a car involved in a violation, instead of the actual driver, is given the citation. Still another variation is expressed in the way a camera captures a picture. Some cities photograph only the rear portion of a car and intentionally avoid filming the interior of a vehicle, particularly when the registered owner is the ultimate target of the citation.

San Diego's approach contains none of these moderating aspects. The cameras film the rear and front of a car. The automated picture shows the interior of a car and thus includes the identity of the occupants as well as the contents of the automobile. In addition, the violation is categorized as a criminal infraction and appears on a driver's permanent record for the purpose of logging moving violations, which can factor into a future suspension of a license or a raise in insurance rates.

Hedgecock tells NewMax that the police had not been fully trained to deal with software, maintenance, camera location and timing of yellow lights. When questions have been asked concerning the technology, the response has been to shield the information, claiming that it is proprietary and belongs to the outside contractor.

This issue of red light cameras is part of a growing problem in the realm of privacy, and the use of more technologically sophisticated tools is clashing with inalienable constitutional rights. We now have automated cameras tracking speeders, facial recognition cameras pinpointing criminals and remote sensing devices poised to penetrate walls and clothing.

The newfound technology has even caught the attention of the House Transportation Subcommittee, which recently heard testimony on the subject. Former San Diego Mayor Hedgecock testified that he wrecked a new car in a collision when a shortened yellow light turned red and caused a commercial truck driver to stop abruptly. Anecdotal reports of these sorts of occurrences stretch across the country, focusing greater and greater attention on cities that use automated red light cameras.

As a result, the San Diego court determination has national implications. There is congressional attention. There are municipalities waiting and watching to see whether this revenue enhancement tool can be used freely. Roger Hedgecock reiterated a portion of the testimony he gave before the House subcommittee, telling NewsMax, "My ingrained American instinct finds these camera crime-accusers repulsively unconstitutional, Orwellian intrusions into liberty." It will be interesting to see if Judge Styn agrees.


Reproduced with the permission of
NewsMax.com . All rights reserved


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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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