ACLU Urges Halt to Use of Red-Light Cameras Until Privacy and Fairness Issues Are Addressed Statement of Barry Steinhardt Associate Director, American Civil Liberties Union

August 23, 2001

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NEW YORK--Many American cities are installing controversial "red-light camera" systems that photograph vehicles allegedly running red lights or stop signs and then use the license plate to look up the owner's address and mail him or her a ticket. 

The ACLU believes that the use of red light camera systems should be halted or delayed until the due process and privacy issues they raise have been properly settled. 

There are two issues of fundamental fairness with the cameras that affect the right to due process under the law. First, the tickets are sent to the owner of a car, who was not necessarily the person committing the alleged violation. The burden of proof usually then falls on the owner to prove he or she was not driving at the time. This is a violation of the bedrock American principle that the accused be considered innocent until proven guilty. 

Second, many red-light camera systems have been installed under contracts that deliver a cut of ticket revenue to the contractor. That creates an obvious incentive to contractors to "game" the system in order to increase revenue and in turn generates public cynicism and suspicion. Such bounty contracts make a mockery of the ideal of disinterested justice and undermine the pursuit of traffic safety. 

Legitimate questions have been raised about the choice of intersections where these cameras have been installed and about the timing of the yellow lights at those intersections -- and whether such decisions were made to increase traffic safety or maximize ticket revenue. 

These questions of fundamental fairness were underscored by the recent decision of the San Diego court holding that the evidence from the cameras was unreliable. 

There are also important privacy issues raised by the cameras. The ACLU is most concerned about what we call "mission creep" -- that the data collected by these cameras will be used for purposes other than tracking reckless drivers. Government and private-industry surveillance techniques created for one purpose are rarely restricted to that purpose, and every expansion of a data bank and every new use for the data opens the door to more and more privacy abuses. 

Similar systems have already been used to invade privacy. For example, cameras installed at the Texas-Oklahoma border have been used to capture the license plate numbers of thousands of law abiding persons, who were subjected to inquiries about why they were crossing the border. 

Traffic safety and information privacy are not mutually incompatible concepts. However, if red light programs are to succeed, the American public must be confident that such systems operate with unimpeachable fairness and that the information collected is used only for the authorized purpose indicated and is not sold, shared or otherwise abused.

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