Don't Give the Green Light To Intrusive Red-Light Cameras

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Now on Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's desk sits legislation that, unless he vetoes or changes it, will empower every locality in the commonwealth with a population of 10,000 or more to install photo-ticketing devices at intersections regulated by traffic lights.

Although there are periodic errors in the identification of license plates, the proposed scheme creates a legal presumption that any photographed vehicle's registered owner is guilty of running a red light. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?

Unlike the experimental red-light camera surveillance programs of a few urban jurisdictions that expired in 2005, this legislation authorizes red-light camera surveillance across Virginia. There is no requirement for further study or any provision that forces the legislature to review the law.

Advocates say that the cameras are needed to deter red-light running and reduce accidents. They further argue that the rights of vehicle owners are protected because owners may, by sworn affidavit, defeat the legal presumption of guilt. They assert that privacy concerns have little merit because citizens' activities in public spaces are not due privacy protection.

In sum, they say, the public safety upside is huge and the due process-personal privacy rights downside is not something we need to worry about in modern times.

They are wrong.

Their argument that privacy rights do not apply to public spaces does not comport with actual human behavior or with constitutional law.

People often choose to "be alone" when walking or driving on a public street where nobody is likely to know them. On privacy grounds, such people may refuse police searches. Further, people on foot and passengers in vehicles may refuse police demands for identification.

This practical anonymity in crowded venues such as parks or restaurants enables people to meet and discuss or resolve private matters with colleagues and significant others. Photo surveillance of public spaces threatens people's right to privacy in their associations and movements when the camera identifies the individual and makes a record of his or her conduct and associations.

Let's take camera-ticketing theology down the slippery slope supporters have laid.

Surveillance cameras in, say, a 7-Eleven are able to record robberies in progress. Someday law enforcement use of driver's license facial-recognition technology might be able to help catch criminals. So, should Virginia pass legislation providing that, anytime the driver's license facial-recognition database and a robbery surveillance tape indicate a possible match, the holder of the license should automatically be arrested and presumed guilty?

And should the records of citizens' movements and associations created by growing government surveillance be made available to litigants in civil lawsuits?

Finally, let's not forget that in 2005 the Virginia Transportation Department's 10-year red-light-camera study concluded that these "cameras are correlated with an increase in total crashes, rear-end crashes, and total injury crashes."

Obviously Kaine must decide which is more important: privacy and due process or a public safety benefit that is dubious at best. I urge him to come down on the side of privacy and due process and veto this legislation now.

-- Mike Stollenwerk


The writer is chairman of the Fairfax County Privacy Council. His e-mail

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company