Jan 162017
 
An automated traffic-enforcement vehicle with a ticket on the windshield. (photo by Charles Schully, reprinted with permission)

An automated traffic-enforcement vehicle with a ticket on the windshield. (photo by Charles Schully, reprinted with permission)

Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

If aliens ever came down to Earth, they would quickly determine that the government of the city of New Orleans is at odds with its own citizens, working ceaselessly to render their lives more grueling and costly.

The latest escalation of this ongoing fracas consists of the use of 55 new speed cameras throughout the parish to close this year’s budget gap. If these additions were simply fixed cameras, they would have garnered less attention. Instead, motorists this week were greeted with a cavalcade of unmarked vehicles equipped with speed cameras parked along major streets.

Some of the vehicle-based cameras were preceded by signage warning motorists of the impending speed trap, but not all. Even if signs were present, they tended to be placed in a location so close as to be useless. The intention of these vehicles is clearly to catch motorists unaware, not to deter them from speeding to begin with.

Nevertheless, the city continues to trot out the implausible trope that the purpose of automated traffic enforcement is a praiseworthy one – promoting traffic safety. The added revenue, the argument goes, is merely a fringe benefit. The real goal is to save lives.

Lt. Anthony Micheu, head of NOPD’s traffic division, was called upon to add a personal spit shine to this cow pie. “If the awareness is there we might deter something from happening,” Micheu told reporters. “That’s the ultimate goal in law enforcement is to deter and prevent, not to just respond.

“First and foremost,” Micheu said, “it’s public safety.”

If the cameras were principally about public safety, as Micheu claims, one would assume that the vehicles would at least park legally. This was not the case. I’ve seen photos of at least two vehicle-based traffic cameras parked illegally since they debuted on Monday.

“This roving camera vehicle was blocking the entire sidewalk on Lakeshore Drive, forcing me to run into the street,” reported local resident Charles Schully in a Facebook posting. “If you use a wheelchair, you are stuck on a concrete island. That’s the opposite of safe. “

Thankfully, somebody took notice. Schully reported that a Levee Board police officer (and curiously, not a meter maid with the Department of Public Works) ticketed the vehicle.

However admirable the efforts of the officer, it will probably come to naught. A $40 parking ticket is a drop in the bucket for a camera that writes thousands of dollars in tickets in a single sitting. And as long as the city gets most of the proceeds, they have little incentive to ensure that the cameras are deployed in a safe or fair manner.

Indeed, as I’ve pointed out countless times before, the entire system is designed for the exclusive purpose of generating revenue. If automated enforcement cameras truly improved safety, one would expect the data to reasonably strong across the board. Instead, studies into whether traffic cameras yield any safety gains have yielded conflicting results.

Just take two recent studies of speed cameras. First, a 2015 study of speed cameras in a Maryland community by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) purported to show significant reductions in both fatal and non-fatal accidents. As one would expect, IIHS research is typically cited prominently by proponents of traffic cameras.

On the other hand, a 2013 study of speed cameras in Arizona released by the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine (AAAM) had concluded that “the placement or removal of interstate highway speed cameras did not independently affect the incidence of motor vehicle collisions.”

There’s also good reason to doubt the IIHS study. Because the IIHS is an industry group, it has a financial incentive to support automated enforcement because in some states (although not in Louisiana) the citations may be used as a basis for increasing auto insurance premiums.

While not all research supporting the use of speed cameras is so easily prone to claims of institutional bias, the fact remains that you can pick and choose studies to support either position. Put mildly, there is simply no consensus in the academic community that speed cameras have any effect whatsoever on traffic safety.

Moreover, if speed cameras were about safety, there would be no reason not to provide meaningful due process protections. Instead, the process for adjudicating these citations is a total farce.

The problem starts with the nature of the citations themselves. Instead of being criminal violations, they are civil violations of criminal statutes with separate penalties. In essence, the city is suing you for committing crimes.

In order to facilitate enforcement, speed cameras are administered by a private third-party vendor, American Traffic Solutions (ATS), and the NOPD merely reviews the tickets for errors post hoc. ATS does not participate in the process; any challenges to the evidence may be handled by an affidavit from a law enforcement officer – even though the law enforcement officer lacks any firsthand knowledge.

The problem is that because ATS generates the evidence, only ATS can actually authenticate it. Only ATS can prove that the speed cameras actually work with any degree of reliability and that a particular vehicle was properly cited. Without ATS actually providing a representative to testify, there’s simply no admissible evidence.

A recent article by Adam MacLeod, an associate professor at Faulkner University Law School, described this problem vis-à-vis his experience challenging an automated speeding ticket. After losing an administrative hearing, MacLeod appealed to municipal court. The city still refused to drop the ticket, the matter was taken to trial.

“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?” MacLeod asked the officer who signed the citation.

“Without hesitating,” McLeod recalled, the officer responded: “Yes.”

McLeod moved to dismiss the charges, and his motion was granted. However, the court failed to refund the fee he had paid to appeal the ticket, despite being moved to do so. In fact, it never even ruled on the motion.

McLeod’s experience is not atypical. I once personally challenged a speed camera ticket in New Orleans, only in my case the city immediately dismissed the ticket after I filed my appeal in Civil District Court. The fine was eventually refunded, but I was essentially told not to hold my breath when it came to getting the filing fee reimbursed.

Since that time, the city has amended the automated traffic enforcement ordinance to provide that all appeals from camera tickets go to Traffic Court instead of Civil District Court, with a smaller $50 filing fee. However, the city also provided that the appeal be de novo, meaning the city would get a second chance to provide admissible evidence, and there is no procedure for refunding the filing fee in the event the citation is reversed.

I would also note the added absurdity in this process. Traffic Court is where criminal traffic charges are originally filed; it is not a civil appellate court. Thus, with a camera ticket, you face civil charges for violating a criminal statute, and your appeal is to a criminal court.

If the city cared about safety, why it set up this preposterous procedure? Why not simply have camera tickets adjudicated in Traffic Court from the outset as criminal violations, treated as any other traffic ticket?

We all know the answer. The only reason camera tickets are treated this way is because they’re a cash cow for the city. Mayor Landrieu is adding new cameras not because there’s a sudden need for greater traffic enforcement; he’s adding cameras because he’s anticipating a budget gap for 2017. If the cameras provided the same due process as before, they wouldn’t fill the gap.

Presumably, the city could find ways to generate revenue without abusing its citizens. Alas, a political calculation has been made that this is a politically palpable means of raising funds. We all need to show that this isn’t true, and do so at the ballot box.

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.

  • Dusk Lipton

    I do. The best example I can think of is Claiborne Ave. in the Uptown direction from downtown. People speed all the time on it and ignore red lights because . . . . that’s Louisiana stupid. Any driver advancing on a green light on a cross street like Napoleon, Jefferson or Nashville, etc., better wait and take a good look before starting up. That’s just an example as to where they’re needed for a safety reason, not to raise revenue. Is there really a reason to go through a red light? I know–you claim it could be for safety when a car is too close behind you. If that happens to you, I suggest you slow down well before an intersection with a traffic light.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Dusk,

      This column really focused on speed cameras, not red-light cameras, but I’ve dealt with the issue of red-light cameras more specifically before. The problems unique to red-light cameras are threefold:

      1) studies show they increase rear-end collisions because people slam on their brakes to avoid being ticketed, offsetting some if not all of the purported safety gains (the same is not true for ordinary traffic enforcement);

      2) the cameras are often intentionally set at intersections with short yellow-light times to increase revenues, or are at least deployed as an alternative to increasing yellow-light times and instituting “all-red” intervals, measures proven time and time again to reduce accidents; and,

      3) the cameras ticket for failure to come to a complete stop before executing a right turn on a red light, which has not been shown to have any impact whatsoever on traffic safety (simply slowing down, though technically illegal, does not increase the risk of a collision significantly).

      The second issue is the most disturbing. It should be noted that when the city first installed red light cameras, they did so only at intersections where the yellow-light interval was as least 4 seconds. When they first expanded the automated traffic enforcement program, however, they intentionally targeted intersections with yellow light times of significantly less than 4 seconds — intersections that clearly needed longer yellow light times. However, statistically, the vast majority of red-light camera tickets are issued within less than a second of the light turning red, so every tenth of a second is worth a lot of money. Thus, the city is keeping intersections less safe by timing the lights improperly because it increases revenue.

      Claiming the cameras are ever about safety as opposed to revenue is simply putting one’s head in the sand. It’s a denial of reality. If the city wanted to improve traffic safety, this wouldn’t be the way to do it.

      • CeeCee

        I know something’s very wrong with the timing of the lights and the time given to pass through. It’s especially problematic when trying to cross over streetcar line intersections–NEVER enough time. Who do we write to about it? What can we do?

        • Owen Courrèges

          CeeCee,

          First of all, start opposing the traffic cameras. They ensure that yellow light times remain short through a financial incentive. Financial incentives will always win out in the long run — so long as cameras are used as a revenue generator, the people who manage them will always be unconcerned with safety. If they actually increased the yellow-light times to proper levels and provided an “all red” interval, the cameras would not be profitable.

          Secondly, we need to support politicians who support nuts-and-bolts infrastructure improvements as opposed to sexier, but less effective projects. Instead of the politician who talks about streetcar expansions and how to turn Bourbon Street into a police state, elect the politician who talks about repaving ordinary streets, reforming bureaucracies, and restoring bus service.

          Thirdly, call Public Works or 311 to report problems. This is my last suggestion because it’s overly time-consuming for citizens and is unlikely to produce results so long as the city fails to allocate resources properly.

      • iSquidball

        Talking about cameras and safety on Claiborne….I honestly want to know how many pedestrian incidents have happened in the areas where cameras are being installed versus the areas along Claiborne (and St Claude, Esplanade, etc). Speeding and pedestrians? Try Claiborne between Nashville and Broadway. It’s like a straight-away for cars while there are Tulane kids, kids from the schools at Nashville, etc trying to cross the road who have to sprint even in light traffic. Why no cameras there?

        And what about Claiborne from Louisiana to MLK? There’s a school right there. But traffic speeds through even during school zone hours. And no camera. None. But we need one on Broadway at Willow, 2 blocks from the elementary Lusher? I can guarantee during actual school hours there is no speeding there – too much traffic to even go more than 15 mph.

  • boathead12

    I welcome the mobile cameras. As one never knows where these may be stationed, in time after paying enough fines, drivers will figure out it’s wise simply to abide by the law. As a frequent cyclist, I’m pleased that there will now be some deterent to the cars driving too fast and too close as I ride legally down the streets. I’ve heard the complaints before about due process and this being an abridgement of liberty. These drivers menacing my right to life and persuit of happiness trumps this imagined right to wrecklessly operate a motor vehicle.

    As for the oft cited article claiming that the rate of auto accidents goes up in the vicinity of these cameras, I find the science on that one incredibly thin. Science definitely out on this one.

    • Owen Courrèges

      boathead,

      You’re not even listening. I’m not talking about “an imagined right to wrecklessly [sic] operate a motor vehicle.” I’m talking about the right to have evidence produced against you when you’re accused of a crime, and to challenge that evidence. The traffic cameras deprive you of that.

      Your attitude is exactly the reason that the cameras persist — you apparently would trade even the most essential freedoms for some imagined safety, especially if the people supposedly being targeted are a category you don’t like (i.e., traffic scofflaws). The problem is that without due process, you can’t even say these are scofflaws to begin with (although it doesn’t stop you from assuming they are).

      It’s basically state-sanctioned vigilantism. We’re allowing a private company to fine people for criminal offenses, and they are not even required to produce evidence that a crime was committed. You might as well pass a law allowing neighborhood organizations to fine people for code violations on their say-so and nothing more. You might as well start classifying complaints as convictions.

      Hell, let’s just abolish the courts entirely. Heck, according to you, accusations are enough.

      • boathead12

        Are the fines levied against the person? If they were, I’d think you’d be issued a citation for a moving violation, and face contempt charges for failing to respond. In fact, they cite the vehicle, and impound the vehicle if the fines are unpaid. The evidence that the vehicle was involved in the commission of a crime is ample.

        • Owen Courrèges

          boathead,

          As I stated in my column, the fines are indeed levied against the person. This isn’t in rem jurisdiction; the automated traffic enforcement statute is predicated on a civil violation of a criminal statute, and also makes the owner of the vehicle jointly and solidarily liable with with the driver for the purposes of facilitating enforcement. They do not “cite the vehicle,” and indeed the statute allows the city to fine the individual and put the debt on their credit report. They can also boot or seize their vehicle, but that’s just because they own it — not because of some legal fiction that the car is somehow the offender.

          As for the idea that there is “ample” evidence of a crime, that’s simply not true. Where is the evidence? We’re talking about speed cameras. The police don’t own, operate, inspect, or calibrate the speed detection equipment. They have nothing to do with it. All the police do is attest to the results, and they do so with absolutely no first-hand knowledge. As I stated in my column, bolstered by the experience of a law professor in another jurisdiction, police are basically forced to perjure themselves regularly to make the camera program work. They sign affidavits stating that the charge is valid in the complete absence of personal knowledge.

          The only other evidence of the speeding violation consists of video and photographs, which could only serve to prove that the vehicle was in a certain location at some indeterminate point in time. However, the truth is that they don’t even prove that, because there’s nobody to vouch for their authenticity. A trier-of-fact is not allowed to simply assume facts not in evidence. The assertions that photos were taken at a certain time and were not manipulated in any way are things that have to be proven via sworn testimony. Nobody can make those attestations but the employee(s) of ATS responsible for the equipment, and they are not called upon to do so.

          What you don’t seem to get is that without procedural protections, there’s no valid evidence of anything. The police are just taking the word of a private corporation and fining citizens accordingly. And they know it’s an illegal scheme designed to circumvent constitutional due process, but they’re doing it anyway. We should be far more disturbed about that than the existence of people who don’t drive well.

    • The Goat

      My experience is that the vast majority of cyclists in NOLA break traffic laws incessantly. I used to ride my bike 80 miles a day but the majority of traffic law ignoring cyclists have led me to abandon using a bicycle as almost all of the cyclists I see run red lights, wiggle waggle all over the road back and forth impeding traffic flow of cars or nearly getting hit by cars, riding the wrong way down one way streets, riding on sidewalks, darting out into traffic without looking where they are going, riding with no functioning lights-blinkers-reflectors at night while wearing dark clothing and numerous other idiotic behavior that results in daily occurrences where I see cyclists cause accidents or very nearly cause accidents.

      How many children have been hit by cars at schools? How many bicycle fatalities and accidents do we have in NOLA? Clearly the the numbers dictate that if safety were the issue the city would be starting a bicycle traffic enforcement force to start reigning in the terrible behavior that has developed to epidemic proportions with the majority of cyclists in NOLA as evidenced by the growing numbers of accidents involving cyclists.

  • JimLeemann

    Cameras have been used here in Scottsdale since 1996 to reduce speed and running stop lights. There appears to be more stop light mounted cameras than roving or fixed speed cameras. The stop light cameras are more effective than the roving or fixed speed cameras. Of course, everyone knows where the fixed speed cameras are and they slow down to the speed limit and speed up as soon as they have cleared the camera range. Cameras may serve as a deterrent, but we all know they are a revenue generator.

    Obviously, NOLA needs revenue, so why not target speeders and stop light runners versus continually crippling the citizenry with more taxes. One of the main reasons we live in Scottsdale versus NOLA.

    What NOLA desperately needs are politicians that are not afflicted with perpetual spending diseases and that know how to live within a budget. Of course, this kind of politician is as rare as hens teeth.

    Frankly, with all the potholes in NOLA, I’m amazed anyone can get up the speed to receive a speeding ticket.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Jim,

      It’s not a matter of whether we target speeders and red light runners vs. raising taxes. First of all, relying too heavily on revenue from fines simply isn’t smart budgeting because it isn’t reliable, and the revenues tend to drop over time. This leads to creative efforts to increase traffic camera revenue, like shortening yellow light times, increasing school zone hours (as New Orleans as done), and at its worst, issuing tickets fraudulently.

      Secondly, you can’t get around the due process problems. I’d prefer that the city tax me as opposed to fining me without due process, even if those fines are supposedly directed towards blameworthy activities, like violating traffic laws. In the absence of adequate due process protections, you really can’t say with any degree of legal certainty who is being targeted. You’re just taking the word of a private, third-party corporation.

      Thirdly, I would note that even in Arizona, where the major traffic camera companies are based, traffic cameras are highly controversial. Just last year the state banned them on state highways, and all cameras in the state were shut down for a period due to an AG opinion saying that the companies needed PI licences to handle private information. Why bother with something that is clearly problematic on so many levels? Trying to generate revenue through traffic enforcement is virtually always a recipe for corruption and abuse. It’s as true for the small town speed-trap and it its for traffic cameras.

      • JimLeemann

        All your points are well taken and spot on.

  • Sure it ensures safety.. of the General Fund revenue. Traffic cameras that move from place to place only get motorists to slow down while they’re in place. Once they move, people go back to whatever they were doing before. Sort of like when you were in school & the teacher was in the room. You’d behave (for the most part) but let him/her leave & watch out. I will be careful when I drive because it’s the right thing to do but I hope I’m not on Candid Camera & have to contest it. From the experiences in this article, even when you win, you lose.

  • Turlet

    Philosophically, Democrats do not have a strong belief in the rule of law. The law is flexible, big government is great, and tax increases are welcome since the money is going towards atoning for the dark sins of the past. There is no valid argument that safety is a high priority for Landrieu, and there is also no will among these Democrats to fight the dangerous camera menace. The British seem to accept millions of cameras as a fact of life, but I don’t want to be victimized by cameras. Now, we don’t even know where they are, so every street is dangerous. The potholes and criminals were not enough.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Turlet,

      I don’t even think the British are all that willing to accept the omnipresence of speed cameras, or as they call them, ‘Gatsos.’ Firebombing gatsos has become something of a national pastime, as shown in this gallery:

      http://www.redditmirror.cc/cache/websites/www.speedcam.co.uk_adyvb/www.speedcam.co.uk/gatso2.htm

      • Turlet

        Most of those cameras appear to be in rural areas, possibly years old as well. Chances are, this outrage stemmed from Conservative rather than Labour voters. I want to see Democrats actually give a damn about cameras. Perhaps if there were evidence that cameras “discriminated” against black drivers, Robert Mann and Jarvis could gift us with an anti-camera propaganda piece.

  • CeeCee

    Since there doesn’t seem to be hardly anything in the way of traffic enforcement, I’m okay with cameras, and wish there were more, then maybe people might fly through red lights less often. I’ve almost been hit many times, and seen crazy, crazy driving. I’d be happier with human enforcement, but if it helps, I’m for it. I think the funds should go to traffic enforcement and roadworks. The city also needs to work on the lights–there should be a slight delay between when a light turns red, and the oncoming traffic light turns green (they are currently immediately after), and to give cars the appropriate amount of time to get through a yellow light when crossing busy, wide, or heavy pedestrian (thus slower speeds) intersections so they can avoid a sudden stop yet avoid running a red. And of course, all the lights should work, all the time. And there should actually be speed limits posted, which mostly they are not. The city needs a ton of work in vehicle and pedestrian traffic safety, so those lights should be far from a solution, but just a small part of it. I know your piece is about the speed, but it’s all part of a very big picture of resident and visitor and city disregard for many ‘road rules’– and if the city won’t / can’t invest in human traffic control (which they should), this is something. Thinking you’ll get ticketed for breaking the laws is the only thing that keeps many people from doing it.

    • Owen Courrèges

      CeeCee,

      I’m still not seeing why you’re ok with cameras. They’re clearly not an acceptable substitute for ordinary traffic enforcement, and if anything, they actually supplant ordinary traffic enforcement. First of all, they’re limited to certain violations — speeding and red-light violations — which are only responsible for a small fraction of accidents. A police officer can observe a car driving recklessly, following too close, failing to close, or worse — driving while severely intoxicated — and the cameras don’t catch any of these. More traffic cops are helpful; cameras are not. However, the city is clearly relying more on cameras and less on police.

      Secondly, the cameras don’t work. Studies are, at best, mixed as to whether they yield any safety improvements. Some even claim they make some intersections more dangerous. We know for a fact that increasing yellow light times improves safety, but the city refuses to do that precisely because it would affect camera revenue. Moreover, as a result of the lack of due process in automated traffic enforcement, we can’t even say that the people targeted are truly guilty of anything. You’re accepting a false perception of cameras as effective that lacks any substance.