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Bipartisan Coalition Looks to Take Down Traffic Cameras

Dresden House Republican Andy Holt said earlier this year he was hoping for bipartisan support to do away with Tennessee traffic camera enforcement.

And he appears to have it.

Led by Holt, Sens. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, held a press conference Tuesday morning to pitch the “Tennessee Freedom From Traffic Cameras Act” and lay out their opposition to camera enforcement.

Holt’s bill is scheduled to be heard Wednesday afternoon in the House Transportation Subcommittee and the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee.

HB1372/SB1128 would prohibit local governments from entering into any contract “to provide for the use of any unmanned traffic enforcement camera” to enforce traffic violations. House Democrat Darren Jernigan of Old Hickory is also a co-sponsor.

“The rule of law, the integrity of law enforcement and the court system in our state, must be preserved,” Holt said.

Holt called the use of camera citations “fundamentally flawed,” and pointed out that the language of the law itself said a traffic camera alone would not provide enough evidence to charge someone with a moving violation.

He also said camera enforcement denies a person the right to face their accuser and the presumption of innocence that “form the bedrock of our judicial system.”

Additionally, there’s been a problem where “the municipalities and the companies involved actually lower the time of the yellow lights” so that they can gather more revenue, said Gardenhire, the primary Senate sponsor. However, he noted, much of that revenue goes to the company running the equipment, and the cities keep very little.

Referring to the initiative as “bipartisan,” Harris pointed out the differences between himself and Holt — “I’m a very proud liberal Democrat, he’s a very proud conservative; I’m from a city, an urban center, and he’s from a less urban center; I think he has a farm, and I’ve never been on a farm.” — but explained they were able to find a common ground on opposing traffic cameras.

Similarly, in a late February press release announcing Harris as a co-sponsor of the legislation, Holt indicated himself and Harris were “total polar opposites politically,” but were “linking arms on a huge issue” to many of their constituents.

“These things in my view are un-American,” Harris said. “Because in America, we’ve got the tradition that you are innocent until proven guilty, and red light cameras fly in the face of that.”

Harris added that traffic camera programs like the one in Memphis “undermine the quality of life” of the citizens, and “make them mad at government.”

Holt and Harris both admitted to reporters they have had some personal involvement with camera enforcement.

The proposal’s proponents also argued that if safety was the goal, red light cameras do a poor job of meeting that. A majority of peer-reviewed studies on the effectiveness of traffic cameras “have shown that cameras actually lead to more accidents, and disincentivize cities to seek safer engineering practices as alternatives because of, unfortunately, the almighty dollar,” Holt said.

However, if past attempts to repeal the legislation and opposition from local governments with camera enforcement contracts are any indication, doing away with camera enforcement looks like an uphill battle for the bipartisan group.

And shortly after Holt first announced his intentions in January, a pair of Middle Tennessee Republican lawmakers both criticized the move, and said that the decision for whether or not to deploy traffic cameras was better handled by local governments.

The legislation’s fiscal note indicates that while it will not significantly affect state coffers, local revenue would be decreased in excess of $978,000.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there are 607 communities nationwide with speed and red light camera enforcement, and 24 of those are in Tennessee.

In 2010, Tennessee’s then-Attorney General Robert Cooper issued an opinion that found the use of red light cameras was constitutional.

In 2011, the Legislature passed a law that regulated traffic camera use statewide. That legislation clarified that for an infraction to occur, the motorist has to have entered the intersection following the light change. The law also ended the practice of ticketing drivers for a right turn on red, unless explicitly posted.

And in 2012, a Knox County judge ruled against an effort by traffic camera operators to overturn the 2011 law due to a decline in their revenue.

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Plan to Ban Traffic Cams Not Universally Supported in Legislature

He hasn’t even filed the bill yet, but Rep. Andy Holt is facing opposition within his own party on his plan to eventually ban traffic enforcement cameras.

Holt, a Republican from Northwest Tennessee, argues that cameras used to ticket motorists for speeding and running red lights “have very little to do with safety, and everything to do with municipal greed.” And he believes they violate the United States Constitution.

But two Middle Tennessee GOP lawmakers — Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville and Rep. Mike Sparks of Smyrna — recently told the Daily News Journal that whether or not city and county governments use traffic cameras is a local control issue.

As the upper chamber’s Transportation Committee chairman, Tracy is an influential voice on legislation that affects the Tennessee roadways. He doesn’t think traffic cameras “should be regulated by the state.” And for that matter, he doesn’t fancy even taking the issue up again so soon after the General Assembly passed legislation in 2011 that established a “framework” for “local communities to use” when it comes to deploying traffic cameras.

Tracy acknowledged in the article that some local officials might abuse the practice. But others, such as Murfreesboro, are using it “in the proper way” to ensure safety.

Likewise, Sparks maintains that the cameras improve safety — something Holt disputes. Anybody who doesn’t like traffic cameras in their community should raise the issue with local politicians — and the state should stay out of it, he said.

“I don’t like them, but I do think they save lives,” Sparks told TNReport Tuesday. He added that he’s had a close call himself when someone ran a stoplight in front of him. The practice is also safer for cops who face the danger of being hit by a passing car when they have to write tickets on the side of the road, he said.

“I’m tired of the federal government telling us what to do, and I’m sure the locals are tired of us telling them what to do. So, if you don’t like their decision, vote them out of office,” said Sparks, who will serve as vice chairman of the House Local Government Committee.

Sparks said he doesn’t have any traffic cameras in his district. One thing he is open to considering is legislation to better protect people’s due process rights when it comes to paying the fine.

Like Rep. Holt, he doesn’t like that out-of-state companies that own the cameras are profiting off traffic violations in Tennessee. Sparks said he wishes “the revenue would be kept in Murfreesboro, rather than going over to a private company in Arizona.”

Murfreesboro’s police chief recently praised the city’s program on the grounds that it has improved safety. And while $2.5 million in traffic camera fines remains unpaid — one-third of the $7.5 million in issued citations — the city council voted to renew the contract for another year.

But not all local governments have used their programs “in the proper way.”

In 2008, a municipal judge ordered the City of Chattanooga to repay $8,800 in fines paid by 176 motorists when it was discovered the yellow-light cycle was about one second shorter than required by law.

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2011 to regulate the use of traffic cameras across the state, which clarified an infraction hasn’t occurred unless the motorist enters the intersection after the light has turned red. The law also put a stop to ticketing motorists for turning right on red, unless a sign is posted specifically prohibiting a right-turn-on-red.

In 2012, a Knox County judge ruled against traffic camera operators in their effort to overturn the 2011 law due to a significant decline in collected revenue. The companies argued that a right turn on red should remain a ticketable offense in municipalities they had contracts with prior to the 2011 law. According to a Knoxville Police Department captain, from July to December 2010, their traffic cameras issued 58,000 citations, but only issued 8,000 citations during that same time period in 2011.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, nationwide there are 607 communities using speed and red light camera enforcement, 24 of which are in Tennessee.

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Holt Looking to Halt Use of Traffic Cameras in TN

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.

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Stoplight Camera Legislation a Go?

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy said he’s hopeful legislation will come out of the General Assembly this year that enacts uniform statewide regulatory standards governing the operation of traffic cameras by local law enforcement agencies.

The Shelbyville Republican told TNReport recently that after two years of start-and-stop discussions he believes there’s been enough on-the-record examination and deliberation of the issues involved to green-light legislative action this session.

Tracy indicated he opposes kicking the can down the road by sending the issue back into study-committee mode.

“It is a complicated issue, no question about that,” said Tracy. “But the more I got into it, the more I realized we do need to come up with a uniform policy.”

While Tracy said he does hear voices advocating that cameras be outlawed altogether, there’s enough support among local cops and officials that an outright statewide ban  — at least of the busy-intersection surveillance variety —  probably isn’t in the cards.

He added, though, that he perceives substantially more citizen anger and steadfast opposition directed specifically at speed-enforcement cameras.

Under legislation Tracy said he’d likely support, counties and cities could still ban red-light or speed cameras within their jurisdictions if pressured to do so by their constituents.

“I have met with communities across the board, and I want to make sure (camera-use) is about safety, and not about revenue enhancing,” said Tracy, who, along with House Transportation Committee Chairman Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, will play a key role in moderating traffic camera debates and molding whatever legislation might ultimately alight on Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.

Tracy said he’s open to supporting legislation that prohibits local jurisdictions from entering into agreements with camera vendors wherein the company is paid a per-ticket fee by the city or county.

“Even though they may not be doing it as an incentive to write more tickets, (in) the perception of the public it is,” said Tracy. “So if the community would pay a monthly fee to the vendor, instead of on a per-ticket basis, it takes that out of the question. Of course, some of the folks are not going to be happy with that.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety this week released a study (pdf) claiming that red-light cameras save lives.

According to an IIHS press release:

Red light cameras saved 159 lives in 2004-08 in 14 of the biggest US cities, a new analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows. Had cameras been operating during that period in all large cities, a total of 815 deaths would have been prevented.

…Looking at the 99 US cities with populations over 200,000, the researchers compared those with red light camera programs to those without. Because they wanted to see how the rate of fatal crashes changed after the introduction of cameras, they compared two periods, 2004-08 and 1992-96. Cities that had cameras during 1992-96 were excluded from the analysis, as were cities that had cameras for only part of the later study period.

An article critical of the study also appeared this week that suggested IIHS employed an “overly simplistic (research) method” and purposefully skewed the findings to support the political objectives of major automobile insurance firms that support the organization.

A recent review of traffic camera safety by The Economist showed inconclusive effectiveness.

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House Sends Traffic-Camera Legislation to Senate

The Tennessee House of Representatives Thursday gave the green light to state-imposed restrictions on local governments’ use of traffic surveillance cameras.

The proposed restrictions came in the form of an amendment attached to a bill that would expand the services automobile clubs are able to offer to their members.

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, would place three new limitations on those governments that use traffic surveillance cameras.

First, it would limit fines for violations at a maximum of $50, it would cap fees such as late fees at a maximum of $50, and it would prevent those receiving tickets from a traffic violation captured by a traffic surveillance camera from being charged court costs unless the ticket is actually challenged in court.

The amendment would also prevent law enforcement from turning in violations captured on the cameras to the Department of Safety, insurance companies or credit agencies.

Finally, the bill as amended would prevent governments from installing new cameras on highways that are maintained using state funds unless the specific location of the camera is approved at two separate hearings by a local legislative body.

The fine and fee limits would be effective July 1, 2011, to prevent the bill from affecting the budgets of local governments. The other limitations would take effect as soon as the bill becomes law.

Some legislators, such as Rep. Frank Nicely, wanted to do more to hamper or halt the use of the cameras.

“We’re quickly becoming one nation under surveillance,” said the Republican from Strawberry Plains. “There’s 300 million Americans and about 50 million surveillance cameras, and we don’t need to go there. You can’t believe them, but we’re beginning to believe them as the truth.”

The sponsor of the overall bill, Rep. Charles Curtiss, a Sparta Democrat, called the restrictions “small, fine-tuning adjustments” and “tweaks” to current law regarding traffic surveillance cameras. To go much further could lead the Senate to killing the legislation, or the governor to veto it, he said.

As a result, several other amendments filed to limit the cameras were withdrawn at the request of Curtiss and Republican Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol, who asked members to put off any further restrictions until next year.

The bill passed on a vote of 91-3, with the only “no” votes coming from Democrats: Reps. Kent Coleman of Murfreesboro, George Fraley of Winchester, and Mary Pruitt of Nashville. Reps. John DeBerry of Memphis and Brenda Gilmore of Nashville, also Democrats, registered themselves on the tally board as “present but not voting.”

The amended bill now goes to the Senate. It is the only traffic surveillance camera legislation to make it through either chamber of the General Assembly this year.

A comprehensive bill to regulate the cameras had been advancing through the House after Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, brought together a number of interested parties who eventually reached a compromise. The bill suffered a setback in the House when it was “placed behind the budget,” meaning it could be taken back up if there is funding for the bill after the state budget is passed. The legislation was later killed in the Senate, however, when some senators complained they were not part of the committee Harmon formed to draft the compromise legislation.

Several other bills dealing with traffic surveillance cameras were dropped after Harmon’s bill was killed.

Some legislators were already talking on the House floor Thursday about bringing the issue back up next year, though.

“Hopefully, next year we really (will) address this,” said Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis. “Our communities are not happy with this, and a lot of legislators here are not happy with this, and I think it’s very intrusive.”

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Traffic Camera Legislation Promised, But Not Before April

The House sponsor of a proposal to regulate red-light traffic cameras made assurances this week that he’ll try to pass some form of the bill this year.

However, nobody should expect any legislative action for another six weeks, said Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap.

He made the announcement Tuesday as he asked the Public Safety Subcommittee to forward the current version of the bill to the full House Transportation Committee.

Harmon said he wants to sit on the bill until April 1 so that agencies and groups like the Department of Safety, Department of Transportation, the Municipal League, sheriff and police chief associations and traffic engineers can attempt reaching an agreement on a final version.

Whatever they come up with will be made available well enough in advance so lawmakers can study it before having to vote on the bill, said Harmon.

Harmon said if the group does not finalize recommendations by April 1, he’ll push all bills related to traffic cameras.

“If that’s not putting the pressure on, I don’t know what,” he continued. “I’m disappointed we can’t move this bill as-is, to be honest with you.”

Rep. Chad Faulkner, R-Luttrell, asked Harmon if he’s fully committed “to do something after April 1.”

“If I do not have something brought to this committee by April 1, I’ll be asking you pass the bill I had originally without their recommendations,” Harmon responded.

Under Harmon’s current proposal, no government would be allowed to enter into, or renew, a contract with a private red-light camera vendor for two years, except for the traffic camera on Hixson Pike in Chattanooga. In addition, fines for first time violators would be reduced from $50 to $10.

In the end, the legislation could hinge on a state attorney general’s opinion Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport has requested.

Among Shipley’s questions for the Tennessee Department of Justice:

  • Do alleged red-light violators have a right to confront their accusers, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?
  • Do the camera systems replace the presumption of innocence with the presumption of guilt?
  • Do the systems create a lack of uniformity in traffic laws throughout the state, which could potentially create a lack of equal protection?

Shipley, who submitted the requested opinion on January 9, said he’s received no word as to when the opinion will be delivered.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General Robert Cooper declined questions, saying all requested opinions are “confidential” until they are released on their web site.

Shipley, who said red-light camera systems are operating in his Kingsport-area district, indicated he’s neutral on whether or not they ought to be banned in Tennessee.

“I’m against them if they are unconstitutional,” he said. “Anecdotally, they have saved lives.”