In a few places around the city, some citizen with a flair for the dramatic has pasted up posters featuring black-and-white photographs of traffic cameras emblazoned with the word “OPPRESSION.” Given the news that continues to come out about New Orleans’ “safety camera” program, these posters appear more accurate with each passing day.
The Times-Picayune delivered the latest bombshell just this past week, reporting that most camera revenue from speed cameras has been coming from a small number of locations with unusually low speed limits.
“The intersection of Henry Clay Avenue and Coliseum Street is a prime example of what seems to be a speed trap,” the Times-Picayune editorialized on Saturday. “That intersection has become notorious with motorists, and no wonder since most streets of its size have a 30-mph speed limit, not a 25-mph limit.”
The Times-Picayune observed that another intersection with an abnormally high number of citations is Jackson Avenue at Chestnut Street, which has a 25 mph speed limit even though the speed limit on most large divided streets is 35 mph.
None of this should come as a surprise to anybody who has actually been paying attention to the debate over automated traffic enforcement. There is every indication that the cameras are designed for the sole purpose of generating revenue. Any consideration for safety is a secondary concern.
However, the real reason these cameras can continue to exist is because the city has made the decision to deny any kind of procedural protection to anybody who anybody who challenges a citation. It’s essentially impossible to get your money back, even if the ticket is bogus. For those who are still unclear on how this scheme works, I’ve made the following step-by-step list on how a speed camera ticket is reviewed:
1. The citizen proceeds past a speed camera, which then records an infraction. Later, a police officer reviews the footage taken by the camera and authorizes the ticket.
2. Several days later, perhaps even weeks after the alleged violation, the citizen receives a speed camera ticket in the mail from American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based company that administers the camera program. At this point the citizen has probably forgotten what happened that day and may not have any specific recollection of their speed.
3. The ticket provides a link to a website with still photographs and a video of the citizen’s vehicle with the alleged time and speed. It does not, however, include any actual evidence of speed. The ticket also includes a date and time for a hearing to challenge the ticket at the New Orleans Administrative Hearing Center.
4. When the accused citizen shows up to challenge the ticket, they usually have to wait hours for their challenge to be heard. This challenge is heard by a Hearing Officer, essentially a contract attorney paid by the city. The Hearing Officer is both judge and prosecutor, but is legally-required to be impartial and provide a meaningful administrative review.
5. At this point, the citizen may ask the Hearing Officer questions regarding how the speed camera actually recorded his speed (i.e., When was it calibrated? What is it’s margin-of-error?). In my experience, these Hearing Officers do not have any knowledge regarding the operation of the cameras, and will not admit any evidence regarding their operation or accuracy. They defer entirely to American Traffic Solutions.
6. Then comes the final decision from the city. The Hearing Officer will uphold the speed camera ticket sans any evidence in the record and instruct the citizen to take his or her challenge regarding reliability or accuracy to Civil District Court (i.e., “Tell it to the judge”).
7. In order to have the citation reviewed in Civil District Court, the citizen must file a petition for review of the city’s decision within 30 days. This will take some legal expertise to draft, and the filing cost with Civil District Court is twice the face value of the ticket.
8. At this point, the citizen will likely call or write to the City Attorney’s office regarding the case they have filed. The city will then immediately dismiss the ticket to render the lawsuit moot and prevent it from coming before a judge (because the city does not create a sufficient record in the Administrative Hearing Center to sustain the ticket). If the citizen has already paid their fine, they must send a request to American Traffic Solutions to refund the fine.
9. However, the citizen now has paid twice the value of the ticket in court costs to file his or her petition. Costs are generally awarded to the prevailing party in a lawsuit. The city will probably not dispute its liability for costs, but only because as a practical matter it doesn’t have to pay them. With some exceptions, citizens cannot enforce money judgments against municipalities under Louisiana Law.
10. Ultimately, the city will place the citizen on a “list” of people to whom it owes money and pay at its leisure. This could be years. Thus, the citizen has essentially lost twice the value of the ticket and the city never had to produce one iota of evidence that the citizen was actually speeding.
This is the way the process actually works. There is no meaningful review. What the city has concocted is an evil, money-making fraud that systematically robs the people of New Orleans. It should come as no surprise that many of these speed cameras are, in fact, speed traps. After all, the whole system is designed to trap the citizen. For the sake of restoring basic concepts of fairness and due process, this system needs to be eliminated.
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.