Speed Enforcement Cameras on the Rise

Unexpectedly having your picture taken can be unsettling. Having a camera take an unexpected picture of you while speeding and issuing you a $300 ticket takes unsettling to a whole new level for most drives. Yet across the country, highway speed cameras are being used by state governments and local municipalities in an attempt to slow down drivers while making some extra cash for government coffers.

In Arizona, over 100 speed cameras are being placed on highways in order to reduce accidents and fatalities. These cameras have the ability to not only ticket a vehicle going over the speed limit, they also have the ability to snap a photo of the driver. Some drivers have learned this the hard way, like Jennifer Bitton, who lives in Nevada where automated enforcement devises are illegal. On a trip to visit her parents in Arizona, a speed camera caught a picture of her cruising 28mph over the legal limit. She was not aware the picture was taken until officers showed up at her parent’s home to arrest her.

Not all states have been so eager to allow their citizens pictures to be taken while speeding. In 2000, the California legislature passed a law strictly forbidding the use of such speech cameras due to privacy concerns. Since then, local jurisdictions like the city of San Jose as have been battling the state over their use of speed cameras, in the hopes that their desire to enforce speed limits locally will trump the privacy concerns expressed in the state legislature. The prospect of them winning that battle is on the verge of being realized this years as a bill is currently working its way through California legislature would allow the use of these cameras on highways throughout the state.

In Maryland, the recently authorized cameras are being heralded as a great success as 20,000 drivers are being ticketed a month on Maryland highways. Though Maryland is an example for other states in how effective the cameras can be in capturing violators (as well as extra revenue), privacy concerns about these cameras and their use still exist in the state and go beyond just picture taking. Maryland did not help put those privacy concerns to rest when they posted the name, birthday, Social Security number and address of speed camera violators on their state web site.

Not to insinuate that the states are doing anything wrong - at least legally, however. The law varies widely from state to state. The main legal challenges to enforcement cameras (both red light and speed cameras) concerns their legality within the framework of pre-existing states laws defining who can be liable for traffic violations. In Iowa, courts began throwing out tickets issued by speed cameras as local jurisdictions with cameras attempted to hold owners civilly liable for infractions committed with their vehicle, whereas Iowa /a> state law only permits law enforcement agencies to hold drivers criminally liable for traffic infractions. The issue of who can be civilly or criminally liable for traffic violations caught on video has also been central to Minnesota’s rejection of Minneapolis’ red light camera program, yet has not been an obstacle in other jurisdictions like Ohio.

Back in Maryland, law enforcement officers have decided to take advantage of the legal uncertainties around this issue. Police officers are literally giving the bird to speed cameras, leaving the owner of their vehicles (the county) responsible for over 224 unresolved speeding citations.


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Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs