The Magazine

Rolling Back the Nanny State

One red-light camera at a time

Aug 1, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 43 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Yet the spectacle of government handing law enforcement duties to private companies with a monetary incentive to write as many citations as possible was a bridge too far. And city by city, the cameras have been pushed back.

Amazingly enough, in some cases the courts actually helped. In California they’ve made life difficult for the camera companies with decisions like the ones in San Bernardino. In Ohio a federal appeals court ruled that Cleveland’s camera law was so poorly crafted that since it said car “owners” could be ticketed, people who lease their vehicles were exempt. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that Minneapolis’s entire red-light camera program was illegal and forced the city to refund the $2.6 million it had collected.

In some cities, the government bureaucracy has pushed back, too. In Los Angeles last June, the Police Commission voted unanimously to drop its contract with ATS and get rid of cameras altogether. Despite the fact that L.A.’s red-light tickets are $476 a pop, and that the program has written $80 million worth of citations since 2004, the city has found a way to lose money on the deal. Once the camera company takes its fat cut, the residual dollars aren’t enough to cover the costs of the seven police officers who monitor the program and make the pro forma signoffs.

But the real muscle has come from voters. Petitions have put cameras on the ballot in local elections across the country, and whenever voters are given a choice on the matter, they say “no.” In Houston, a pair of lawyers fought city hall to get a charter amendment (Proposition 3) on the ballot. The city’s camera company, ATS, spent $1.7 million in advertising during the race. The cameras lost. In Anaheim, an amendment banning cameras won 73 percent. In Sulphur, Louisiana, an anti-camera measure took 86 percent. From Maryland to Ohio to Arizona to Illinois, whenever voters get to pull the lever, the cameras get run out of town.

Which is why many towns (and the camera companies) have tried to keep the matter out of voters’ hands. In its 2010 annual report, Redflex noted that, while citizens have attempted to introduce ballot measures on cameras in many localities, the company was “actively implementing measures to defend against them” so as to “protect and improve our interests” in these “markets.” That’s not just bare-knuckled Redflex tactics, it’s the industry standard. In Mukilteo, Washington, for instance, ATS asked a court to issue an emergency injunction preventing a proposed camera ban from appearing on the town’s ballot. The court declined; the anti-camera measure won, 70 to 30.

Part of the reason people hate cameras is that the alliance of business and government tends to bring out the worst in both. In 2009, Danny Park was driving through Santa Ana when a camera operated by Redflex tagged him for running a light. He fought the $436 ticket on the grounds that the city had not provided a 30-day warning period for the camera, which California state law requires at every intersection where a camera is operational. Park took his case all the way to the appellate division of the Superior Court in Orange County. And he won. The decision was scheduled for publication when the city of Santa Ana took the extremely unusual step of petitioning the state Supreme Court to “depublish” the decision. Why? It wouldn’t change the verdict in the Park case, but an unpublished decision would mean that other California drivers wouldn’t be able to use the case as precedent. Instead, they’d have to re-create Park’s entire argument from scratch—and likely work their way up the appeals chain, since the trial courts almost always find for the state in such cases—if they wanted to fight illegally manufactured tickets. (The High Court denied the request.)

When they’re not trying to game the legal system, the camera industry runs creepy Astroturf campaigns proclaiming its beneficence. Whenever cameras are in danger of going on ballots, a website appears. In Mukilteo it was KeepMukilteoSafe.com. The sites purport to be grassroots hubs for pro-camera voters, but they’re prefab constructs without a whit of actual public support behind them. At least 18 of them appeared across the country recently, nearly identical in form and content. All of the sites were registered by a company called Advarion, which provides web services to ATS.

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