NMA E-Newsletter #205: Technology Failure Brings Early Holiday Gift to Motorists

The Village of Elmwood Place, Ohio, has had its share of ups and downs since it installed speed cameras on September 1. By some measures the program has been wildly successful, issuing 14,000 tickets and generating $470,000 in revenue. Elmwood Place has a population of 2,100.


But the backlash was almost immediate. In early October, angry motorists confronted village officials at a village council meeting. Shortly after that, a council member called for the mayor’s resignation over her handling of the affair. She declined. Soon, officials faced another challenge: a lawsuit alleging the village did not follow proper legal procedures when setting up the program.


This familiar scenario plays out over and over in communities around the country. Officials respond with assurances that the cameras are perfectly legal and intended for safety purposes only. They point to rigorous equipment calibration and maintenance requirements. They describe the careful handling and review of all photo “evidence.” They create the illusion that ticket camera systems are infallible. But are they?


Recently, an Elmwood Village magistrate dismissed nearly 1,000 camera tickets for drivers who showed up to appeal. The reason? It seems the police chief’s tablet device containing all of the citation data was on the fritz, and there was no paper backup.


Tossing the tickets was the right move, but the technical snafu calls into question the integrity of the entire process. If the police chief’s device contains the only local record of a violation, is it even possible for a police officer to review it and certify it?


Most traffic courts assume the “evidence” gathered by the camera is 100 percent accurate and admissible in court with no additional authentification. But if the entire data/evidence chain can be thwarted by one temperamental device at the end of the line, one must wonder about the many opportunities for compromise that arise along the way.


A standard photo ticket defense is to question the validity of the evidence based on technical issues. Camera defendants have the right to question camera company personnel about the reliability of their data collection and management procedures.


However, many jurisdictions are making this increasingly difficult to do. California, for example, just enacted a law that deems ticket camera evidence as sufficient without the supporting testimony of camera company technicians. Tacoma, Washington, reportedly requires ticket camera defendants to pay hundreds of dollars in travel expenses for camera company representatives to testify at hearings. Both practices effectively deny defendants their constitutional right to confront witnesses against them.


Even so, motorists who receive photo tickets should appear in court to contest their tickets as vigorously as possible. What if those 1,000 drivers in Elmwood Place hadn’t shown up to fight? They certainly would not have received their holiday bonus, courtesy of a defective microprocessor.

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