The Legal Netherworld Of Traffic Cam Tickets, Where Everything Is Both Civil And Criminal, While Also Being Mostly Neither
from the American-Traffic-Systems-Multiverse dept
Adam MacLeod, law professor at Faulkner University, was the recipient of a traffic cam speeding ticket. The problem was that he wasn't driving the vehicle when the infraction occurred. So, it was his vehicle being ticketed, but he was being held responsible for someone else's infraction.
He decided to fight it, and that fight uncovered just how crooked the traffic cam system is. Not only are traffic camera manufacturers receiving a cut of every ticket issued, but tapping into this new revenue stream has prompted municipalities to undermine the judicial system.
MacLeod's detailed report of his fight against city hall is well worth reading in its entirety. But one hint of things to come reveals itself in MacLeod's conversation with the city's attorney when attempting to figure out how one goes about actually challenging a traffic cam ticket.
I asked her whether this was a criminal action or a civil action. She replied, “It’s hard to explain it in those terms.” I asked whether she intended to proceed under criminal procedural rules or in civil procedure. We would proceed under the “rules of criminal procedure,” she answered because this is a criminal case. I asked when I could expect to be charged, indicted, or have a probable cause determination. She replied that none of those events would occur because this is “a civil action.” So I could expect to be served with a complaint? No, no. As she had already explained, we would proceed under the criminal rules.
The attorney had no way of answering this question honestly, or even accurately. What MacLeod discovered during his speeding ticket battle is that his local government -- like many other local governments deploying traffic cameras -- had created a legal netherworld between civil and criminal law where tickets issued by software were allowed to operate.
[T]raffic cameras do not always produce probable cause that a particular person has committed a crime. To get around this “problem” (as a certain law-and-order president-elect might call it), several states have created an entirely novel phylum of law: the civil violation of a criminal prohibition. Using this nifty device, a city can charge you of a crime without any witnesses, without any probable cause determination, and without any civil due process.
In short, municipal officials and their private contractors have at their disposal the powers of both criminal and civil law and are excused from the due process duties of both criminal and civil law. It’s a neat trick that would have made King George III blush.
Once a government becomes reliant on a new, legally-questionable revenue stream, the "questionable" part tends to be buried under absurd claims about traffic safety and traffic accident deaths. At this point, the entire system is corrupted. Legislators like the money. Cops like the money. The camera company (in this case, American Traffic Solutions) likes the money. Everything that needs to be done to ensure the cashflow doesn't dry up is done, including engaging in perjury.
MacLeod was finally allowed to address the proxy accusing him of speeding: the local PD. Its testifying officer buried himself (along with the city and ATS) during cross-examination.
On cross-examination, I established that:
- He was not present at the time of the alleged violation.
- He has no photographic evidence of the driver.
- There were no witnesses.
- He does not know where Adam MacLeod was at the time of the alleged violation.
And so on. I then asked the question one is taught never to ask on cross—the last one. “So, you signed an affidavit under the pains and penalties of perjury alleging probable cause to believe that Adam MacLeod committed a violation of traffic laws without any evidence that was so?”
Without hesitating he answered, “Yes.” This surprised both of us. It also surprised the judge, who looked up from his desk for the first time. A police officer had just testified under oath that he perjured himself in service to a city government and a mysterious, far-away corporation whose officers probably earn many times his salary.
Once you're corrupt, it's all over. The officer MacLeod questioned seemingly didn't realize his complicity in this corruption until he was directly questioned. In all fairness, he'd likely been told everything about the ticketing system was above-board, legally and constitutionally.
But once the new system -- one that is neither criminal nor civil -- is challenged, it falls apart. MacLeod reports that Alabama residents fought back against the deployment of traffic cameras, resulting in the repeal of the state's traffic cam law. Not that his mattered to the city of Montgomery's (where MacLeod resides) governance.
[M]ontgomery’s defiant mayor announced that the city would continue to operate the program. Curiously, he asserted that to stop issuing tickets would breach the city’s contract with American Traffic Solutions.
That went on until the state's District Attorney stepped in to shut down the mayor's rogue traffic cam program. Or tried to. A compromise of sorts was reached. Car-mounted cameras were shut down, but stationary cameras already in place were allowed to keep issuing tickets summoning citizens to the city's judicial Kafka-esque criminal/civil intersection.
Unhappy with having to (sort of) comply with state law, the mayor made it clear that cameras may come and go, but newly-found revenue streams are here to stay.
In a fit of petulance, and belying his insistence that the program is motivated by safety concerns rather than revenue, the mayor announced that the amounts of fines for ordinary traffic violations will now be tripled.
That's how the system works. The money must flow from the citizens to their government. And if the pipeline has to run right through their civil rights and liberties, so be it. Traffic camera systems are sold as public safety enhancements, but all they're really doing is transferring more money -- and more power -- to governments willing to let contractual obligations with private companies take precedence over Constitutional amendments.