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AG Says Traffic Cameras Pass Constitutional Muster

The main question Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper’s office examined was whether or not the admission of photographic evidence violates the “Confrontation Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees that citizens accused of crimes have the right to confront their accuser in court.

The state attorney general has issued another opinion stating that red-light traffic camera citations are constitutional.

The main question Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper’s office examined was whether or not the admission of photographic evidence violates the “Confrontation Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees that citizens accused of crimes have the right to confront their accuser in court.

“The Confrontation Clause embraces testimonial statements,” the Attorney General’s Office wrote in the opinion. “Photographs are not testimonial statements.”

The attorney general later expanded on that statement by citing the court case State v Williams.

“Because a camera is not a witness that is amenable to cross-examination, and because a photograph of a vehicle is not a ‘testimonial statement,’ introduction of the…photographs into evidence does not violate the Confrontation Clause,” the court ruled in that case.

The attorney general went on to say in the opinion “both the federal and state constitutional confrontation provisions are restricted, by their own terms, to ‘witnesses’ and do not encompass physical evidence or objects such as photographs.”

Cooper’s opinion is not considered binding law, but represents the government’s best guess as to how a court would rule if such a question would come before a judge.

Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who requested the opinion said the attorney general’s staff seemed to have given the issues involved “a good, thorough looking.”

“I don’t know that he answered all of the questions I asked, but he answered enough for me to say that at this point (the cameras) are constitutional.”

“There’s no case law, so it’s difficult for him to opine any other way,” Shipley continued. “Once there’s case law, that may change the dynamics. As I told the mayor and Board of Alderman here (in Kingsport), I’m just going to listen to Chairman (Bill) Harmon’s subcommittee until there are federal rulings to know if it’s constitutional.”

Rep. Shipley said it is possible that he may ask Cooper for another opinion, since he does not believe the most recent opinion answered all of his questions.

Shipley’s request for an opinion included a dozen questions, including whether or not the camera systems replace the presumption of innocence with the presumption of guilt, and whether the systems create a lack of uniformity in state law among municipalities throughout the state that could potentially create a lack of equal protection.

The attorney general’s office did not address every one of Shipley’s questions directly, but instead melded them down into three questions: the Confrontation Clause, whether the penalties are civil or criminal in nature, and whether the ordinances create owner liability.

The attorney general’s office answered the latter two questions by referring to an AG’s opinion from 2008.

In that opinion, the attorney general cited City of Knoxville v. Brown, which said the red-light camera systems “did not violate due process by creating an impermissible presumption that the owner was the guilty party, did not violate owner’s right against self-incrimination, and did not violate owner’s right to equal protection.”

“Brown remains good law,” the attorney general’s office wrote in the most recent opinion.

Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, is sponsoring legislation that would prevent a municipality from entering into or renewing a contract with a private red-light camera vendor for two years. In addition, fines for first time violators would be reduced from $50 to $10.

Harmon has delayed pushing the legislation until a number of interested parties can meet as a subcommittee. They’re planning to have recommendations ready for the legislature by April. Among those involved in the talks are the Department of Safety, the Department of Transportation, The Tennessee Municipal League, the Police Chiefs Association, the Sheriffs Association, and traffic engineers.

Shipley said he’s neither for nor against the traffic camera systems, per se. He just wants to make sure that they are constitutional.

He believes the cameras have done “a remarkable job” of preventing certain types of accidents.

“We’ve not had a T-bone accident in a couple of years,” said Shipley. “Across the city, T-bones are down dramatically. We’ve had more rear-end crashes, but (the cameras) have safety benefits you can’t ignore.”

“Now that the attorney general has ruled they are constitutional, I just think we need to establish guidelines so the laws are uniform across the state, and then we need to get out of the way and let the municipalities handle it, and if people don’t like (the cameras), then they can deal with their mayor and aldermen at election time.

While Shipley seems satisfied the essential constitutionality of the cameras, he’s still not entirely trustful of the systems.

He tells a story of a 76-year-old man who paid a ticket he received in the mail. When his daughter checked her father’s finances, she noticed the violation took place while her father was undergoing a colonoscopy.

It turned out that he had left his car at a mechanic to have its brakes fixed, and the mechanic ran through a red light when he was testing out the new brakes on the car, according to Shipley.

“I also don’t like the idea of ‘guilty by convenience’ because someone doesn’t want to take the time or spend the money to challenge a ticket,” Shipley said.

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