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.

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