ACLU of Iowa Challenges Use of Speed Cameras in Davenport

Affiliate: ACLU of Iowa
June 14, 2006 12:00 am

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DAVENPORT, IA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa today began the defense of a Davenport automobile owner who received a speeding ticket in the mail based upon pictures of his vehicle taken by an automated traffic enforcement camera.

“This is about government control more than citizen privacy,” said Ben Stone, Executive Director of the ACLU of Iowa. “We hope this case can provide a vehicle to help put the brakes on the idea that it’s okay for computerized machines to control our lives.

The ACLU is representing Thomas Seymour, a Davenport car owner and taxpayer whose vehicle was photographed speeding by an automated enforcement camera earlier this year. The ACLU is asking the court to dismiss the ticket on the basis that the city lacks authority to depart from state speeding laws where the identity of the driver must be shown and constitutional rights of the accused apply.

In January, Davenport became the first Iowa community to use computerized cameras to monitor the speed of motorists and automatically issue them tickets. The automated traffic enforcement ordinance mandates the issuance of a “civil” ticket to the owner of a vehicle caught speeding or running a red light. The owner must pay the requested fine to the city or face a trial on municipal infraction charges at which additional court costs would be assessed. The only defense would be that the vehicle was stolen. The ACLU said it is concerned about the inflexible justice that such systems dispense.

“Our right to be held accountable only for our own actions and not for someone else driving our car, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and to be at peace when traveling in public are all at risk here,” Stone said.

The ACLU also warned that financial incentives to municipalities to adopt and even misuse such systems are strong, and may cause the cameras to become automated ‘speed traps’ for the unwary taxpayer.
“Automated traffic enforcement cameras are expensive and heavily marketed and lobbied for by private firms that stand to make millions from the schemes,” Stone said. “They also provide municipalities with an easy way to garner millions of dollars from taxpayers.”

Red light cameras, which are more common that speeding ticket cameras around the nation, have already proven to be a money maker for the cities that operate them. In Howard County, Maryland, traffic cameras in the first five years of operation brought in over $9 million, from which the camera company received over $3 million.

Speeding cameras look to be even more effective at generating fines. Davenport is reported to have brought in nearly a quarter million dollars from unsuspecting motorists driving past just two cameras in a mere six months. It is unknown how much of this revenue went to the company operating the cameras.

Despite these concerns, the federal government has subsidized the purchase of the automated traffic control systems. In Iowa, the cities of Davenport and Council Bluffs have operated red light cameras for some time. Clive, a suburb of Des Moines, is set to begin using the cameras perhaps as soon as tomorrow, June 15.

Safety advocates have suggested that cheaper solutions exist, including simply increasing the amount of time yellow traffic lights are on. According to the National Motorists Association, when Virginia officials added 1.5 seconds to the yellow light at an intersection with red light cameras, the number of violations went down 94 percent.
“If safety is really the motivation for red light cameras, then officials should try adding time to yellow lights before resorting to automated enforcement schemes. If they don’t, then you know it’s about money instead,” said Stone.

Another concern safety advocates have is the mounting evidence that red light cameras can actually make intersections more dangerous as motorists slam on the breaks to avoid getting a photo ticket, thus getting rear-ended. In 2005, the Washington Post reported a study that found that injury and fatal crashes had actually increased 81 percent after red light cameras had been installed at 45 intersections in the District of Columbia.

“Thoughtful Iowans should shudder at the thought of a future filled with computerized cameras monitoring citizens and evaluating their behaviors everywhere they go,” said Stone. “It’s hard to think of anything more Orwellian than this. As technology becomes cheaper in the years to come, machines like this really could be put everywhere.”

ACLU of Iowa cooperating attorney Michael McCarthy is representing Seymour in the Davenport case. Trial has been scheduled for early July 2006 in the Iowa District Court for Scott County.

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