The War Over Traffic Cameras

When Adolph Belt Jr. was notified by mail that his car had been photographed speeding through a red light in Springfield, Mo., he had every reason to be surprised. Belt isn’t just a law-abiding citizen; he had worked for 30 years on the state’s highway patrol and is considered to be a “traffic expert.”

According to the Joplin Globe, after he found out about the ticket, Belt decided to go back to the intersection, and time the traffic lights himself. Sure enough, he found that the duration of yellow light was shorter than it was supposed to be. Unfortunately, there was no way for the traffic light camera to know that, and despite his evidence, the city decided he was guilty and fined him the standard $100 fee.

Unsatisfied, Belt took his case all the way to the state Supreme Court and managed to overturn his ticket earlier this year in what was a rare legal repudiation of red-light cameras. The court did not rule that these cameras were unconstitutional, or that they did not work, both of which are complaints that have been leveled against them by opponents. Instead the court simply ruled that the way Springfield processed tickets against people like Belt did not demand a high enough burden of proof. Rather than process tickets through a criminal court, where a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilt, Springfield handled the claims in administrative proceedings where citizens were more or less assumed to be guilty from the start and had less chance to appeal the ticket. The cameras work fine, the court seemed to say, but that doesn’t mean they are infallible.

Few things inspire such polarized feelings as red-light cameras. What’s more is that while this technology is designed to boost public safety, often it only seems to boost the public’s ire.

If you are unfamiliar with red-light cameras, consider yourself lucky. Over the past decade, these cameras have become more common in cities and towns across the country. Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and many more urban and suburban locations have at least a few cameras on their roads, and more names will likely join the list before the year is done.

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