Traffic Light Cameras and Due Process

This past Friday (the day after Thanksgiving), while visiting my parents in Jonesborough, Tennesse, I came across a letter to the editor in the Johnson City Press concerning the issue of traffic light cameras. It happens that the Johnson City Commission is considering a proposal to install traffic light cameras at various key intersections, primarily to catch violators of traffic signals. See the following articles: Traffic Camera Plan Again Delayed and JC Again Defers Vote on Red Light Cameras. Though nothing is said here about using the cameras to catch speeders, one would imagine that would be the next step, once the initial program is deemed “successful”.

The letter writer (Larry A. Miller), a resident of nearby Kingsport where a similar system is already in place, brought up the matter of due process by responding to the quote of Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry in the above Kingsport Times News article dated November 21, that he “assured the commission that motorists would be able to contest a citation in municipal court.” Mr. Miller (in his letter) went on to explain how it works in Kingsport to challenge a citiation: “When one goes to court… the first thing the judge tells everyone is if you contest the citation and lose, it will go to the state to be put on your driving record, but if you do not contest, there will be no record of it.”  He goes on to explain the “fee” without contesting as being $100, and the “fine” for contesting if one loses as $110. He also mentions that, so far, all those in Kingsport who have contested such a citation have been found “guilty”, and adds, “Seems like coercion to me, a polite word for blackmail.”

Indeed, blackmail it is. This is clearly a perversion of due process, and reading about it was enough to make my blood boil. The worst aspect of it is that the “guilty” citation goes onto one’s state driving record if it was contested, whereas it does not if it was not contested.  It seems to me this is far less about “safety” than it is about promoting the power of the state through fear and coercion. Certainly I want drivers who run stop lights to be cited, fined and held responsible, but I want this to be accomplished by a live human being, with the opportunity to contest the citiation (due process of law), as any human law enforcement officer can make a mistake. Likewise, a robot in the form of a camera can also make a mistake, and should never be presumed “perfect”.

Using hidden cameras to catch traffic violators is unacceptable for several reasons, of which I mention three. First of all, the cameras take a picture of the license plate of the vehicle, and then mail the citation to the owner of the vehicle (whose address is kept in a state database). The owner, rather than the driver (who might be a child, spouse, or parent or other relative of the owner, or even a friend of the owner), is held responsible, with the possibility of the owner’s driving record being tainted for an infraction that may have been committed by someone else. Second, the use of cameras is part and parcel of what can be called the surveillance state, which is very much of the world George Orwell created for his famous novel 1984. Such a world is governed by perpetual fear, fear of the hidden force of government lurking in the shadows. Third, the use of hidden cameras to enforce traffic laws can lead to other uses, leading to the violation of privacy and the general idea of “big brother watching you”. In the the U.K., such cameras can be found all over the place as part of what has become an ever-growing police surveillance state. Is this, the world of Orwell’s 1984, what we wish to create in our own country?

It may seem “harmless” enough to some people for local government to be engaging in this kind of thing, but it is at the local level that many politicians who climb the ladder to the halls of the state legislatures, Congress, and even the White House, get their practice at amassing power and control over other people. Giving up essential liberty (the liberty to be secure in contesting charges against oneself) and privacy for the sake of “safety” is unacceptable.  Benjamin Franklin said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Due process of law, as explicitly required by the Bill of Rights (specifically, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments), must be followed. We should insist on preserving liberty and privacy at all levels of government.

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