Picture This...No Police Discretion

April 18, 2007
City Council greed trumps officer discretion

Running a red light can certainly be one of the most dangerous risks a vehicle operator can take. In order to save the time sitting at a red light, a driver will race the amber light and hopefully make it through the intersection. According to the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, in 2003 over 200,000 drivers didn’t quite make it through the intersection in time; these 200,000 accidents resulted in 934 deaths and 176,000 injuries. According to the Federal Highway Administration, running red lights cause 1,000 deaths a year and 95,000 injuries a year. Law enforcement officers and government officials are properly concerned--what can be done to reduce the accidents caused by drivers running red lights? One recent solution has been the installation of traffic cameras at intersections.

The red light cameras have been installed in cities all across the country in hopes of reducing right angle accidents. The usual practice is to fix the cameras at an intersection, then post warning signs reading "Red Light Violations are Photo Enforced." A motorist approaching an amber light, fearing written enforcement through the mail, slows for the yellow light and stops, rather than recklessly entering the intersection. Accidents are reduced, the roads are safer and uniformed police personnel remain available to handle more serious situations. It seems like a great idea--one that is supported by the National Safety Council, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

But as with many ideas, when the theory met reality there were unintended consequences. Red light cameras were serving their intended purpose--they were getting motorists to stop racing the light. Unfortunately, several studies revealed a surge in rear end accidents. It seems that the lead driver who didn't want to get photographed and ticketed stopped for the amber light--the guy behind him was still in the "race the light" mode, creating many rear end collisions. Studies showed that the number of right angle accidents that were avoided were about equal to the number of rear end accidents that were created.

City administrators didn't see right-angle or rear-end or red or amber--they saw green. Red light cameras paid dividends on initial investments. Towns began to reap huge financial benefits from the red light cameras. Washington DC reportedly raked in $32 million in six years; Dallas, TX hopes to generate about $12 million in the first year after installing 60 red light cameras. City councils were suddenly very interested in the strict enforcement of traffic safety laws. They were not interested enough to hire more cops, but certainly interested enough to invest in more cameras. As with any law enforcement issue that is left to civilians, the idea of red light cameras was soon adulterated by greed. As cameras began appearing in many jurisdictions, charges of amber lights being re-timed surfaced. In one case, CBS News reported a town in Maryland re-timed the amber light at a camera intersection to 2.7 seconds, while other intersections remained at four seconds in an apparent attempt to generate revenue.

Concerned law enforcement officers should cast a jaundiced eye on red light cameras. A law officer's first duty is to uphold the Constitution. A summons issued through the investigative work of an inanimate object negates any chance a defendant would have to confront an accuser--a basic right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Summonses are issued to the registered owner, regardless of whether the owner is operating the vehicle or not. There is no apparatus in place to check if the license plate has been altered to represent a fictitious number.

The red light camera also removes the most vital aspect of law enforcement officer discretion. Most officers are sensible enough to ask why an offender committed a violation. The officer then applies his professional judgment in deciding whether to issue a summons. There are some factors that may justify a person proceeding through a red light. It should be up to a law enforcement professional to make that judgment call.

The removal of discretion in the enforcement of motor vehicle laws is not a positive development. As technology progresses, more and more violations will be enforceable by machines. Right now, speeding tickets could easily be issued by machines measuring the time it takes a certain vehicle to travel a certain distance. How would the machine be certain it is tracking the correct vehicle? That technology already exists with E-Z Pass.

The most essential aspect of law enforcement is the professional judgment the officer brings to each situation. Police are not paid because they can mindlessly fill in the blanks on a traffic summons. Officers are paid to make specialized decisions through the prism of their training, experience and the totality of circumstances. Police have already allowed communications and much parking enforcement to be turned over to civilians. Turning over enforcement of motor vehicle offenses to technology may make sense fiscally, but it subverts the type of measured justice Americans have come to expect.

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