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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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Traffic Camera Talks Restarted

Legislators say they’re going to give debate over stoplight cameras another go next year. But they are not sure how far down the road they’ll get toward sending a bill to the governor’s desk.

The Senate Transportation Committee met for nearly two hours Tuesday to hear the latest traffic safety statistics from major metro police departments using traffic cameras to ticket drivers who violate driving laws.

The issue’s been something of a political flash point for some time now. Lawmakers last formally discussed the subject seven months ago.

Arguments over how, when or if local law enforcement should be using the unmanned surveillance equipment to spy on motorists involve a range of disagreements and competing perspectives.

Among them are questions about the essential purpose of the image-recording devices — whether cameras at intersections are used more for preventing accidents or as tools to boost local government revenues. And if safety is the priority, are they demonstrably effective?

There are further debates over how much oversight the companies that make, install or maintain the equipment ought to be subject to, and whether people who’re ticketed as a result of camera-based evidence are being afforded their full spectrum of rights, including that of being able to confront and question their accusers.

Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper has issued more than one opinion, most recently last February, indicating he see no legal problems with traffic camera use.

The Senate put the breaks on a bill that made it through the House of Representatives last session. The reasoning cited was that Senators needed more time to study the issue because they weren’t particularly involved or kept apprised of the legislation development.

The Senate Transportation Committee plans to continue studying the issue in 2011, according to its chairman, Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville. He said his committee would start from scratch instead of building on language from the House bill. Tracy is “not sure” whether any legislation will get the green light for floor votes by the time lawmakers break for the year.

“I want to make sure it’s a safety issue,” said Tracy after Tuesday’s meeting. “I want to look at statistics at these intersections where we’ve got data from Murfreesboro and Chattanooga and Knoxville and see if actually accidents have gone down and there’s been safety there.”

For now, lawmakers are mulling over the prospect of standardizing traffic camera practices across the state, such as by limiting the total amount traffic violators can be charged, capping the number of cameras used or mandating that private companies operating the equipment not be paid per violation.

On the other hand, some lawmakers are still flat-out opposed to them. State Sen. Mae Beavers contends that traffic cameras are simply unconstitutional. “I’ve always had a problem with them and I always will,” said the Mt. Juliet Republican, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee.

There are no guarantees what will happen, said. Sen. Andy Berke, a Chattanooga Democrat. Lawmakers may ultimately vote to standardize the cameras. Or, they may vote to ban them altogether, he said.

“I don’t assume they’re here to stay at all,” Berke said, adding that he expects traffic-camera discussions in the Tennessee Legislature to continue for years, not months.

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Traffic Surveillance Camera Regs Come to Standstill

Efforts to regulate and restrict the use by Tennessee local governments of traffic camera surveillance systems may have ground to a halt for the year Wednesday. Members of the Senate Transportation Committee complained they were not involved in efforts by a House committee to draft a compromise, and voted to send the issue to a summer study committee.

“This Senate committee is asked to vote on these things, and apparently we have not participated in any of the study, and because of that, I’m going to move that we move this to a joint study committee so that the Senate members can have some input in this as well,” Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams.

“I don’t think we’ve been asked to even look at it,” said Sen. Jim Tracy, a Shelbyville Republican who chairs the committee. “It’s a very complicated issue. I think local governments have an obligation to protect their communities and police officers to provide a safe condition for the motorists and pedestrians in their community…but I believe as legislators that we have an obligation to our citizens in the state to insure uniformity in implementation and operation of these cameras and violations are enforced in a fair manner.”

Sen. Tim Burchett, the Knoxville Republican who sponsored SB2918, said he was disappointed.

“I’m not a fan of these. I guess if I could, I’d outlaw them, but that doesn’t seem like the option or the will of the committee or the legislature,” he said.

Tracy promised to tackle the issue as soon as the legislature is out of session.

“I want to get started on this sometime in June or the first of July to start studying this issue. The citizens are concerned about it, and I’m concerned about it,” he said.

The sponsor of the bill in the House, Rep. Bill Harmon, R-Dunlap, appointed a committee in February to come up with compromise legislation in order to get a bill passed this year. That committee consisted mostly of government agency representatives.

Harmon began shepherding the bill through House committees last month, but those efforts hit a roadblock last week when the bill was “placed behind the budget,” meaning if there are funds to pay for the cost of the bill, it could be revisited after the budget is passed.

Some have questioned if the cameras are even constitutional. However, the attorney general issued more than one opinion, most recently in late February,  indicating he see no legal problems with them.

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AG Says Traffic Cameras Pass Constitutional Muster

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.