A conservative Northwest Tennessee Republican lawmaker is hoping to build a bipartisan consensus in the General Assembly that’ll lay the brakes to the proliferation of unmanned traffic-enforcement cameras — and maybe end their use altogether over time.
“We recognize that this has been attempted in the past here in the state, but think that the conditions are right now that would help to benefit this legislation,” state Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, told TNReport this week. Similar legislation has been passed or proposed around the country, and Holt said he’s examining those initiatives to ensure Tennessee lawmakers get the benefit of “other legislative perspectives from across the nation.”
Holt believes unmanned cameras violate a core doctrine in American constitutional law — the right for people accused of a violations of law to face their accusers, which is enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Bill of Rights.
He also doubts there are any public safety benefits that result from the wide use of unmanned cameras.
Governments using traffic-enforcement cameras are “not a good substitute for law enforcement” and “an unconstitutional action” to boot, Holt said.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 13 states have laws banning the use of speed cameras and 10 states have laws prohibiting the use of red light cameras. Tennessee law permits both red light and speed camera use.
Holt attributes their prevalence to “municipal greed,” and calls revenue gathered through their use a “pseudo-tax.”
“If I could single-handedly outlaw every speed camera in the Great State of Tennessee, I would do it without a second thought,” Holt said in a press release issued last week. “Regardless of political party, the vast majority of folks are 100 percent against them.”
He said he recognizes, however, that contractual agreements exist between companies and municipalities across the state which could make instituting an immediate difficult. “We’re obviously going to have to deal with that. But what we want to go ahead and do is set a stake in the ground to say that red light cameras, speed cameras — unmanned — are not welcome in this state,” he said.
The constitutionality of red-light cameras has long been a contentious issue.
In 2009, the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled red light cameras are not a violation of due process.
In 2010, then-Attorney General Robert Cooper issued an opinion that found red-light camera citations are constitutional, as the “Confrontation Clause” pertains to “testimonial statements,” which a photograph is not. An AG opinion represents the officeholder’s best judgment of how a judge would rule in a particular case, but is not legally-binding.
And most recently the Ohio Supreme Court, in a divided 4-3 ruling in December, upheld traffic camera enforcement by municipalities, reversing an Ohio Court of Appeals judgment that the municipal court has “exclusive authority over traffic-ordinance violations.”
As of February 2014, there had been a 6 percent decline since 2012 in the number of communities using red-light cameras. Growing questions about whether the cameras enhance safety or cause more accidents, as well as about the motives for their use, have been cited as likely causes of the decline.
In 2008, the City of Chattanooga was ordered to refund $8,800 in red-light camera fines to 176 motorists after it was discovered the cycle for the yellow light was too short.
The Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill in 2014 clarifying that drivers who clear an intersection after a traffic light turns red are not guilty of running the light unless their front tires passed the stop bar after the light switched. The proposed wording change was inspired by language used in red-light camera laws.
The 109th General Assembly will convene Feb. 9 for regular session, following a special session on Feb. 2 to discuss Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” Medicaid expansion proposal.
Holt said he expects to file legislation in the next few weeks.