Federal Court Rules Photo-Enforcement Programs Constitutional

"No one has a fundamental right to run a red light or avoid being seen by a camera on a public street."

by / January 7, 2009

Whether or not to install cameras that take pictures of drivers as they run red lights has been a controversial subject--among city transportation officials as well as residents. One group of residents even sued claiming a city's red-light enforcement program was unconstitutional.

Photo-enforcement systems that issue citations to owners of cars involved in red-light infractions instead of drivers are constitutional, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this week. In the case, lawyers for motorist Parveen Idris challenged Chicago's system of collecting fines for red-light violations.

Of the 25 states where photo traffic enforcement is used, only programs in Arizona, California, Oregon and Colorado actually photograph the drivers of the offending vehicles.

The ruling in Parveen Idris v. City of Chicago in which plaintiffs argued the city's method of capturing a red-light violation and fining the owner of the vehicle used in the infraction violated their rights to equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

In invalidating the plaintiffs' due process claims, the court concluded that "no one has a fundamental right to run a red light or avoid being seen by a camera on a public street."

According to the ruling, the city's goal has been to make the person responsible for the vehicle according to readily available legal documents the one liable to the fine.

The court rejected the plaintiffs' claim that owners should not be held liable when they are not driving. "A camera system can show reliably which cars and trucks go through red lights but is less likely to show who was driving," the court observed in its ruling. That would make it "essentially impossible" for the city to prove otherwise.

The court further found that "a system of photographic evidence reduces the costs of law enforcement and increases the proportion of all traffic offenses that are detected," and that this can only be achieved if the owner of the vehicle is held responsible.

"That the city's system raises revenue does not condemn it," the court wrote. Rather, "a system that simultaneously raises money and improves compliance with traffic laws has much to recommend it."

Another argument the plaintiffs' made was that the city's means of collecting evidence of the traffic infraction violated the plaintiffs' right to due process. The court found that the photographs taken of traffic signal violations were at least as reliable as live testimony.
"The due process clause allows administrative decisions to be made on paper (or photographic) records without regard to the hearsay rule... and the procedures Chicago uses are functionally identical to those it uses to adjudicate parking tickets" which had been found to be constitutional in an earlier ruling.

"This decision effectively settles the issue of the constitutionality of photo-enforcement programs, confirming what our clients and hundreds of communities nationally have long argued," said James Tuton, President and CEO of American Traffic Solutions. "Photo-enforcement is a legal, successfully-proven tool that assists communities in improving public safety on local roadways."

Proponents of the cameras see the ruling giving communities more confidence in going forward with installing red-light enforcement cameras. Often the first question city attorneys are asked about beginning such a program is whether it is legal or not. The ruling, proponents say, addresses opponents' key constitutional arguments.

In another case, Adolph Belt, a former Missouri state trooper is suing the city of Springfield, M.O., over a ticket he was issued by the city's photo-enforcement system. In a statement received by OzarksFirst.com, Belt's attorney, Jason Umbarger, said it was important to note that 7th Circuit Court's ruling is not binding on any court in Missouri. Umbarger maintains that Springfield's use of photo enforcement cameras threatens the safety of motorists and their constitutionally protected freedoms.