Jul 162012
 

Owen Courreges

You know, if I ever have kids, I think I’ll send them to Company Burger for school. It’s probably cheaper than paying for a traditional private school, and I hear the cafeteria is awesome.

What? You say that Company Burger isn’t a school? It’s a burger joint?

Oh my. Somebody might want to alert Mayor Landrieu before he starts subsidizing it as a charter school.

You can understand why I’d be confused. After all, as you approach Company Burger on Freret Street, you see a flashing school zone sign and a speed camera. However, there’s no school on Freret within the school zone, and the absence of a school next to a school zone is, to say the least, unusual. You might start to wonder if you’re seeing a restaurant or a burger academy.

The reason there is no school is because the building where Company Burger presently operates (together with two other businesses) is the former site of Audubon Primary Academy. Audubon Primary, a small nursery and preschool, moved from Freret to Religious Street in the Lower Garden District in January 2011. The building was then subdivided into three storefronts.

That’s why there was a school zone adjacent to what is now Company Burger. It doesn’t explain, however, why on earth the school zone is still there.

The reason, alas, is a speed camera. This past March, the Landrieu administration announced that it would be bringing 11 new speed cameras online in school zones, including both east and westbound at the “former Audubon Primary Academy.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Landrieu’s own press release recognized that he was putting in a speed camera in a school zone created for a school that was no longer there.

Now, Landrieu and his crime syndicate of a mayoral administration have clearly perpetrated a pathetic and reprehensible scheme to systematically rob the people of New Orleans by fining them for speeding by a nonexistent school. That’s obvious enough. The real question is whether there is any semblance of legal pretext whatsoever for maintaining the school zone and fining motorists for violations.

The answer is no.

First of all, under Section 154-534(c) of the New Orleans Municipal Code of Ordinances, school zone speed limits “shall only apply on days when a school that the zone applies to is open for instruction during the regular term.”
I suppose you could argue that because Audubon Primary is still “open for instruction,” albeit miles away, that the school zone technically remains legally active. However, statutes aren’t supposed to be interpreted in ways that produce absurd consequences, and having an active school zone for the benefit of a school miles away is absurd. At best, the statute is ambiguous as to whether a school can be considered “open for instruction” for the purposes of a school zone when it is no longer in the same location. Such ambiguities must be read to favor the citizen.

The only other way the school zone could still be legal is if it existed for the benefit of some other school. Section 154-232(5) of the City Code requires the city traffic engineer to “[d]esignate as school zones those roadways or portions thereof adjacent to a school where children of the seventh or lower grades attend on a regular basis and are likely to cross such roadway as pedestrians in going to or from the school.”

However, “the city traffic engineer may designate such other portions of streets or intersections as school zones . . . where traffic and engineering investigations determine need for such zones[.]”

It’s pretty clear that the school zone was established exclusively for Audubon Primary. Our Lady of Lourdes School is nearby on Freret, but the school zone doesn’t start until after you pass it. Thus, the only school the zone was ever adjacent to is the former Audubon Primary.

There is another school a block-and-a-half away on Valence Street, Samuel J. Green Charter School. I suppose the city traffic engineer could have established the school zone for Samuel J. Green because “traffic and engineering investigations” determined the need, but given that it’s over a block away on a side-street, that’s difficult to believe.

Accordingly, there’s no legal school zone. You can’t violate a school zone except when school is in session, and Audubon Primary is no longer in session on Freret. Nevertheless, the Landrieu Administration created and continues to maintain this illegal school zone regardless.

Why, do you ask? It’s because the Landrieu Administration a speed camera on Freret is lucrative and school zone violations are icing on the cake.

Believe it or not, it actually gets worse! First, as I noted in a previous column, this particular speed camera has been ticketing for school zone violations outside of posted hours. Apparently, neither the private contractor’s employee who programmed the camera nor the NOPD officer who reviewed the ticket were capable of telling time.

Secondly, the city council voted this past week to increase school zone hours to two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. The city claims this move was because some schools operated outside of standard school zone hours, but that could have been solved just by tailoring school zone hours for those schools. The municipal code already expressly provides that the city traffic engineer may tailor school zone hours in whatever way he sees fit.

So why did the city feel the need to change the law with respect to school zone times when it already accommodates the problem alleged? Well, let’s put it this way: the proposal to increase school zone hours was first made by the Landrieu Administration in a press release concerning… Drum roll please… Traffic cameras!

Because Mayor Landrieu has been pushed to place limits on the cameras (raising the threshold to trigger a violation) the only way to maintain revenue was to make the cameras ticket for school zone violations for longer periods. Nothing about the cameras ever has a lick to do with safety. It always comes down to revenue.

This whole program is sickening. Landrieu is brazenly ignoring the law and extorting his own constituents. When will it be enough?

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  • Come On, Man!

    It’s ridiculous, but go the speed limit and quit whining. The errant camera costs you, what 6 seconds (10 mph for .1 miles)?

    • Nate

      Go the speed limit? State control, man.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Come on, Man!,

      Ok. Did you actually read my column? My point is that the camera is ticketing when there is no school zone speed limit, because legally, there is no school zone. You can go the speed limit and still be ticketed.

      And in any case, your argument seems to be that nobody should complain about government corruption so long as it only constitutes a minor inconvenience. That cavalier attitude towards misconduct is, in my opinion, part of what has given our city a reputation for corruption. It allows a lot of rationalizations that eventually spiral into far worse acts.

      But even if you don’t believe that and think that minor corruption is irrelevant, consider that this could become the basis for a class action suit and a verdict the city cannot afford, either financially or public relations-wise. I think the city is probably saved in the meantime because this camera has not been on-line for very long, but over months and years this camera will produce millions in revenue and harm thousands of innocent motorists. The city could save itself a lot of grief by shutting it down now.

      • Pearce

        I, personally, cannot stand those cameras. Its a revenue generator disguised as a safety measure which is fueled by unsuspecting motorists. You have written numerous articles about the illegalities of the legal process on the back end of the camera tickets. And now to see that there are illegalities surfacing on the front end as well is extremely vexing. There is far too much complacency in this town when it comes to what the government is able to pull over on us.

  • Uptown Spyboy

    Slow down, speed kills. Furthermore, Company Burger should be a charter school, there food is awesome.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Uptown Spyboy,

      I’m all for slowing down near schools, but I think you’d agree that Company Burger does not merit a 20 mph speed limit.

      • alli

        Freret has a ton of pedestrian traffic (aka, “people”). I have no problem with 20 mph speed limits pretty much anywhere.

        • Owen Courrèges

          alli,

          I think that’s too slow. It certainly isn’t the norm. In any case, I would think you would agree that speed limits should be determined in accordance with the law. This one is not.

        • Cousin Pat from Georgia

          What the speed limit “should” be is kind of irrelevant.

          I don’t care if they set it at 20 MPH, 25 MPH, or 26 MPH in celebration of Duece McAllister. You still can’t fairy-tale up a school zone to suddenly drop the speed limit so you can raise revenue through traffic cameras. That is NOT OK.

      • Uptown Spyboy

        I concur, and commend you on an impeccable driving record.

  • The school on Valence a block away from Freret, riverside, isn’t within that school zone? Lovely.

    I’m not a huge fan of these camera tickets. 9 times out of 10, you don’t really know something ‘s happened ’til days later in the mail. I find myself taking other routes to avoid the cameras, myself.

    • Owen Courrèges

      liprap,

      The way the city code is written, school zones are automatically erected along any street adjacent to a school. The city doesn’t have to perform a traffic study; it just automatically puts them in. The school zone on Freret was installed for the benefit of Audubon Primary. When Audubon Primary moved, the only legal way to maintain the school zone would have been for the traffic engineer to perform a study and hold that the school zone was intended for Samuel J. Green Charter School.

      I haven’t filed a public records request on this (the Landrieu Administration has been illegally denying most records requests relating to traffic cameras) but I’m fairly confident that the city did not bother to justify the school zone with a new traffic study. For starters, I don’t think such a study would justify it. Samuel Green is over a block away, and the city normally doesn’t designate school zones in such instances. Even if a significant number of Samuel Green students do cross Freret, that would at best justify a school crossing, not a full blown school zone.

      And in any case, one would think that the city would not have referred to Audubon Primary in the press releases if it was one of Samuel Green’s school zones.

    • Owen Courreges

      UPDATE: I just drove by Samuel J. Green School on Valence, and it does have a school zone on Valance but there is a sign saying “SCHOOL ZONE END” about a half-block before Valence intersects with Freret. Clearly, the school zone on Freret can’t be for Samuel J. Green.

  • Andy Brott

    Owen-
    It’s summer- it’s hot- I can understand…
    In the past (and hopefully again soon), my families day began with a morning news paper, Newhouse has killed that joy.
    So I now read UM, CB, and that Laddder blog thingy that links to other new sites to keep informed locally.
    I want read you to.
    Especially now with so many of our journalist forced to reach for the soap in a crowded prison shower.
    I enjoy your humorous critical thinking, but you loose street cred when you trick us with Company Burger then feed us McDonalds.
    Yea you right on the camera thingys….
    Duh!!!!
    Move on, before people think you are just another snearing realtor- who writes get free advertising.
    Your smarter than that.
    + One thing you don’t realize (and I have spent too much time above to go into great details- and won’t)
    But these cameras also function as crime cameras-
    Crime happens on Freret, calls made/investigations begin, with help from mine + other private cameras on Freret it shows we need to get a license plate number from a car involved- we know that car may pass this same camera you bitch on at “X” time-
    NOPD calls the Scottsdale company with camera # and time and hopefully gets the plate number.
    Does it work?
    Not always, but it’s a start.
    So if you still have the bug to bother brother and an axe to grind- please find us a way to turn this lemon into lemonade.
    NOPD needs all the help we can give.
    Best from Freret,
    Andy Brott

    • Owen Courrèges

      Andy,

      Respectfully, the notion that the speed camera on Freret is really intended as a crime camera is very far-fetched.

      First of all, the speed camera only activates when it detects speeding, so you would need to have a criminal travel past the camera and be speeding at the time. Although this is possible, it’s also unlikely and hardly the most effective means of ensuring general surveillance. After all, the city could just as easily install an actual crime camera if that was its goal.

      Secondly, as I noted in a previous column, crime cameras are, broadly-speaking, not very effective at reducing crime. The U.K. has installed millions of them in London alone and it is estimated that they solve roughly one crime per year per *thousand* cameras.

      Thirdly, even if this were just a back door way to get a crime camera installed (which, again, is very far-fetched), the fact remains that people are being illegally ticketed. At least the muggers on Freret are up front about illegally taking your cash; the city pretends it has a legal pretext. And it isn’t true that the former involves the threat of violence while the latter does not — every government requirement involves the threat of violence because if you don’t comply and then resist, the police will hurt you even if the city was the party that was breaking the law to begin with.

      Let’s say that Joe Blow gets a speed camera ticket during “school zone” hours on Freret. There is no valid school zone, so Joe ignores the ticket, or he writes a challenge which is automatically denied. Later, the police come to boot Joe’s car, or rather to illegally seize his car. He tells them to stop and they refuse. Now, at this point if Joe tries to force the police to stop booting his car, they will respond in kind with violence, perhaps even lethal force. This all started with an illegal speed camera ticket.

      In short, your argument that the city should be able to use an illegal school zone speed camera to catch criminals strikes me as the type of “ends justify the means” argument that will not make the city safer and is every bit as bad, if not worse, than the criminal activity it is trying to stop.

      • Donald Waits

        Owen,
        Just ignore the “lighten up” crowd. The reason so many things go wrong is because too many people take that “lighten up” stance and let outrageous laws and regulations make life uncomfortable for us. To ticket drivers for an infraction that does NOT exist is not a small thing. I used to get “no sticker” tickets REPEATEDLY in the Quarter, even though I had the sticker plainly stuck on my window. The “maid” did not bother to even LOOK at it. I had to photograph the window and send in the picture with my ticket MANY times. My time was wasted responding to something that did not exist. “Lighten up”? Yeah, right!

        • Owen Courrèges

          Donald,

          Thanks. I really thought that I’d get universal support on this column because the wrong is so obvious. “A school zone with no school! A speed camera citing people for a school zone that doesn’t exist! The city knew it was illegal from the beginning but did it anyway!”

          And these have been the responses I’ve gotten:

          1. Um, speeding is bad, m-kay.

          2. All roads should restrict vehicular traffic to rickshaw speeds.

          3. Stop whining and obey the fake speed limit.

          4. The camera’s still awesome ’cause it might catch robbers while the camera itself is robbing people.

          Really?

          And your experience with parking enforcement comes as little shock as well. If we put up with all of these minor abuses of power and the law, it’s the same as asking for more of it.

          Likewise, as an attorney, I’m mindful of the fact that causing small bits of harm to a lot of people is just as much a concern as causing huge amounts of harm to a single person. This is why we have class action suits and mass torts. Nobody should be able to get rich (or get revenue, as is the case with the city) simply because they figured out how to spread the harm around.

          • ConservativesDefeated

            Owen,
            I am sure that it comes as no surprise to you that many people’s critical thinking skills are impaired..

      • Mr. C-
        I’m sorry for wasting yours and your readers time.
        Best,
        Mr. Brott

  • boathead

    Owen, there is a theme in your writing. Your need for haste. Slow down, chill out, enjoy the city for what it is. There is nowhere you need to go in this town at a speed higher than 25mph anyway. Until public works synchronizes the traffic lights, all you are doing is wasting fuel in your race to your next stop.

    • Owen Courrèges

      boathead,

      This isn’t about haste — it’s about legal versus illegal. It’s about the city sending citations to people who didn’t break the law. This “boys will be boys” attitude towards government corruption prevalent among many in this city is really shocking to me.

      And FYI – I’ve never received a ticket from this camera (or any other for years now). I’ll admit that I don’t like pokey drivers and sometimes I’m in a hurry, but that has absolutely nothing to do with my attitude towards these cameras.

  • NOLABeau

    Gee, maybe with the ticket money they can buy new signage and flashing lights to let us know 1) if the school zone does still exist, 2) let us know IF and WHEN the school is in session!

  • Westbanker

    Owen: One issue I have not seen addresses with regard to extending the school zone hours is what will the cost be to change all the school zone signs citywide and reprogram all the traffic cameras?

  • Mycroft

    We have finally found the location of Hogwarts’ campus in N.O.: the student access is through a burger joint!

  • postturtle

    If speed cameras are intended to increase safety the City might consider the approach by VW in this video on YouTube.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=iynzHWwJXaA

  • Owen Courrèges

    Andy,

    Don’t get me wrong — I wasn’t asking for an apology. I don’t consider your comments to be a waste of time; in fact, they gave me a chance to further explore this issue. I disagree but you did raise an issue with traffic cameras.

    Please feel free to comment freely in the future. I’d hate for my overbearing style to ward off earnest responses.

  • Three Strikes

    I just received a citation from this traffic camera. The alleged violation took place at 8:54 am. The posted school zone hours (as reflected in the photo shot by the traffic camera) are “7:30am to 8:45am”. The camera clocked me going 26mph on 8/9. The posted speed limit at this time is 25mph.
    And so, I have been issued a $75 citation for speeding in a school zone on a date before school was in session, on a street where there is no school, and at a time that was outside the posted school zone hours. Three strikes, City of NO.

  • J

    Owen, you’re a life saver. I was ticketed on Prytania near McGehee in mid-August before the start of McGehee’s school year. I remembered seeing this post and went to my hearing armed with proof that McGehee was not in regular session then and had the ticket dismissed. Thanks.