Owen Courreges: The mayor’s optical illusion

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Owen Courreges

Mayor Mitch Landrieu claims that he is genuinely concerned about the due process rights of those accused of automated traffic camera violations. So does Council President Jackie Clarkson.

Indeed, when State Representative  Jeff Arnold (D-Algiers) began making noise about the issue last May, he was openly lauded by Landrieu as “a steadfast advocate for due process rights for those accused of an automated camera violation.”

Landrieu was announcing his support for a bill brought by Councilwoman Clarkson on behalf of the Administration.  The proposed ordinance would shift camera ticket appeals (but not the initial hearing) from Civil District Court to Traffic Court.  According to Landrieu this would “allow residents to have a venue to make their case before an elected judge” and would “also be more accessible since the fees associated with filing in Traffic Court are considerably less.”

When I heard about this proposed change, my first reaction was puzzlement.  Traffic Court is a criminal court, whereas camera tickets are civil violations.  How can Traffic Court be made to handle civil appeals falling under the Administrative Procedure Act?

The short answer is, it can’t. The proposed ordinance was withdrawn a few months ago after being repeatedly deferred. According to Mike Sherman, Landrieu’s chief liaison with the City Council, the realization came when city officials discovered that appeals from Traffic Court (a criminal court) must be heard in Criminal District Court.

I’m sure that this was a shocking revelation.

Of course, a less charitable interpretation is that the Administration incompetently proposed an ordinance that was obviously in contravention of state law and all common sense, and has yet to propose anything to replace it.

Or, if we want to be even less charitable, we might assume that Landrieu knew the ordinance was illegal all along and only pushed it to shut Rep. Arnold down and quell concerns over the lack of due process at the New Orleans Administrative Hearing Center, the mockery of justice that issues determinations on parking and camera tickets for the city. The ordinance was deferred for a decent interval, and then withdrawn.

Whether shrewd or stupid, the ordinance proposed by Landrieu and sponsored by Clarkson essentially represents an admission on behalf of the city that the Administrative Hearing Center doesn’t give citizens a fair shake, and that the city gives the shaft to anybody who appeals camera tickets to Civil District Court.

This admission comports with my column from a few weeks ago. As I noted then, “the problem is twofold:  One, that the Administrative Hearing Center ignores basic rules of evidence and procedure and acts as a rubber-stamp for the city, and; two, that the city refuses to pay cost judgments from camera tickets appealed to Civil District Court, thus guaranteeing that a citizen who challenges the city’s illegal determination will be out twice the face value of the ticket (which is the filing fee for such an appeal).”

This being the case, why doesn’t Landrieu move to reform the Administrative Hearing Center, which is under the Department of Public Works and headed by-­ one of his own hand-picked appointees?

And if not that, why won’t Landrieu at least agree to pay any award of court costs from a camera ticket appeal within, say, 30 days?

These are obvious, simple fixes. However, they both have one thing in common: ­ they would cost the city money and would likely make the automated traffic camera program unprofitable. Providing a legitimate, fair civil hearing is expensive. The city would have to actually produce record evidence, which it currently refuses to do. Witnesses could be called and cross-examined. Hearing Officers would be truly independent and hired according to merit.

Likewise, paying cost judgments from camera appeals in a timely manner would be expensive if the city failed to reform the Administrative Hearing Center. This is because as the situation stands currently, the Administrative Hearing Center doesn’t produce an evidentiary record that can withstand an appeal. The only reason why the city isn’t inundated with camera appeals is because they refuse to pay court costs, and under state law, you can’t enforce a judgment against a municipality.

Mayor Landrieu has all but admitted that the automated traffic enforcement program is all about revenue.  In a bid to frighten citizens already concerned about the city’s budgetary woes, his office has ominously claimed that the elimination of traffic cameras could “‘impact essential city services and could result in additional furloughs and closing of city facilities.”

However, it has now been nearly four months since Clarkson’s bill was withdrawn.  All Landrieu’s office has done since that time is endorse a state proposal to allow appeals from Traffic Court to be heard in Civil District Court (given that traffic offenses are traditionally criminal matters, this makes little sense).

Although Landrieu appointed Lt. Col. Mark Jernigan as head of the Public Works Department last November to replace Robert Mendoza, there has been no reform of the Administrative Hearing Center. Thus, all we’ve gotten from Landrieu is the admission that we are being denied due process, and the consolation that the city really, really needs the dough.

The moral of this column is this: The systematic denial of due process is a feature of the automated traffic enforcement system, not a bug.  It is the denial of due process that makes the cameras profitable versus traditional methods of enforcement (i.e., the cop on the corner). If the city actually had to pony up the cash to give citizens a fair hearing from the get-go, it would drop the cameras like a bad habit.

So Mayor Landrieu, you’ve reached the first step. You’ve admitted you have a problem with the camera system.  Next, you need to go cold turkey. Stop denying New Orleanians due process and scrap the cameras entirely.

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.

13 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: The mayor’s optical illusion

  1. Hi Owen, I just wanted to thank you for standing up about this and pushing the issue. I have a small stake in this…I was the person that the Times-Picayune wrote about yesterday on the front page–moved here and got shocked with more than $1,000 in unfair tickets from trips to Wal-Mart. Please don’t stop. It’s been a small relief from the frustration of what happened to us to see your writing on the topic.

    Ryan

    • I have a hard time getting worked up over this, particularly when the oppressed are people that required a ticket to make them read traffic signs. I know, “first they came for the knuckleheads, but I did not speak up, because I was not a knucklehead.”

  2. I must disagree on one point only. While it may be true that the cameras are simply a profit center for the city, they have made the city a safer place to drive, if only because they have impacted my driving habits. After getting stung by the camera in front of Trinity School one Saturday afternoon, I have resorted to driving like a nun if I must drive at all.

    Yep, that’s me stopping for every person that wants to cross Magazine St., and never exceeding 25mph on any of the city streets. I find that I get to my destinations in the same time, and with considerably less anxiety.

    There is one element that the traffic camera program is lacking, and Owen, perhaps you can explain the legal limitations of this idea. There is a need for a mobile speed camera. With proper notification in the newspaper, it should one week be set up on Feret St, and the next on Camp. Unless you are watching the public notice’s like a hawk, you should fear speeding lest one of these mobile speed cameras should flash its strobe at you on any street in the city where the pavement is smooth enough for you to top 30mph.

    It would certainly be more costly to operate than the current systems, but it would truly serve as a deterrent and make the city’s streets a safer place for all citizens.

    • Clark,

      While it may be true that the cameras are simply a profit center for the city, they have made the city a safer place to drive, if only because they have impacted my driving habits. After getting stung by the camera in front of Trinity School one Saturday afternoon, I have resorted to driving like a nun if I must drive at all.

      I disagree. The cameras are a mixed bag on safety because they tend to increase rear-end collisions. And “driving like a nun” isn’t necessarily safe. Driving slower than the speed of traffic, in addition to annoying the heck out of other drivers, can itself cause accidents if only because it increases the need for people to change lanes and pass.

      Yep, that’s me stopping for every person that wants to cross Magazine St., and never exceeding 25mph on any of the city streets.

      Like going well under the speed limit, stopping for everyone who wants to cross at unguarded intersections (aside from being rude to everyone behind you) can definitely cause accidents. It’s also technically illegal – you aren’t supposed to stop in a travelled lane unless traffic is stopped or stopping is required by a sign or signal device.

      There is one element that the traffic camera program is lacking, and Owen, perhaps you can explain the legal limitations of this idea. There is a need for a mobile speed camera.

      Well, I don’t believe the city ordinance authorizes them, although other cities have used mobile speed vans. The problem is that they really won’t increase safety because speeding is rarely the actual cause of accidents. The safest speed to go is with the flow of traffic, not too slow (as you do) and not too fast either. Also, as I noted above, they raise serious due process concerns.

      If you’re really concerned about speeding, why not just propose to have a cop staked out? It’s really, really not that expensive in the grand scheme to have a traffic cop in the area (because the fines are much higher), and having a policeman in the area also deters other crimes. No offense, but other than a fetish for cameras, or some vain hope that traffic enforcement can be spun into a cash cow, I don’t see why you keep coming back to automated traffic cameras.

    • Camera should be placed at appropriate locations and not because a neighborhood or a school want them. They become unnecessary speed traps – example the one on Henry Clay – does not make sense. The criteria for placing a traffic camera on any thorough fare has not been revealed nor input sought.

  3. People need to understand that even the safety justification is a total scam. The number of rear end accidents has increased because people slam on the breaks to avoid getting bogus tickets that they can’t appeal.

  4. Owen – Once again, you have penned an article effectively in support of law-breakers and law-breaking. I get that the camera system has serious flaws, but why do you persist in making absurd statements like (to paraphrase your response to Clark, above) “driving the speed limit is dangerous”?! I’m having a really hard time working up any outrage over speeders getting ticketed. Drive the limit and don’t get flashed!!! How hard is that to figure out? Oh, and those rear-end collisions that are supposedly such a common occurrence now – that would be two violations: tailgating AND speeding!

    I appreciate that you have found sundry legal problems with the administration of the cameras – but please stop belittling the importance of traffic laws!

  5. Seeking Balance,

    Owen – Once again, you have penned an article effectively in support of law-breakers and law-breaking.

    No, I’ve penned an article in support of due process. You may yearn for a fascist paradise where all the state needs to do is accuse a person of something and guilt is automatic, but in America the state actually has the burden of proof.

    I’m amazed that I constantly see this attitude. I explain in detail how the city is avoiding providing any evidentiary support for camera violations (aside from the unsworn testimony of American Traffic Solutions), and you say that I’m just supporting scofflaws. Well, if the city won’t prove violations, how do we even know they’re scofflaws?

    I get that the camera system has serious flaws, but why do you persist in making absurd statements like (to paraphrase your response to Clark, above) “driving the speed limit is dangerous”?!

    Driving the speed limit isn’t dangerous, but driving well below the prevailing speed of traffic (i.e., driving 25 mph on every street in the city regardless of the speed limit) is dangerous.

    I still say that the safest speed is with the flow of traffic. Deviation from the median speed is a major risk factor for being in an accident, regardless of what the speed limit is. This has been known for some time. For more information, check out this wiki article on the Soloman curve:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_curve

    I’m having a really hard time working up any outrage over speeders getting ticketed. Drive the limit and don’t get flashed!!! How hard is that to figure out?

    So, you just take American Traffic Solution’s word on this? Apparently, if they say somebody was speeding, they were speeding. Why do we even need to have any procedural protections at all? If you get a ticket, you’re guilty. That’s what you’re saying.

    Oh, and those rear-end collisions that are supposedly such a common occurrence now – that would be two violations: tailgating AND speeding!

    You seem to regard traffic laws and enforcement as ends unto themselves, when in actuality they are supposed to be about safety. If traffic cameras lead to more accidents, it doesn’t do to say that motorists are at fault. The fact is that it’s unsafe to make a hard stop at every yellow light because some people may be tailgating, speeding, or just distracted. Although it’s not illegal to make a hard stop at a yellow, and other motorists should be leaving enough following distance to stop, it still greatly increases the risk of an accident resulting. Thus, if red light cameras encourage many motorists to make hard stops at yellow lights, they are encouraging an unsafe driving practice.

    In other words, it means that red light cameras can, in practice, cause accidents and make our roads less safe, at least with respect to rear-end collisions.

    I appreciate that you have found sundry legal problems with the administration of the cameras – but please stop belittling the importance of traffic laws!

    Traffic laws are important, but we need to look at them rationally and with respect for all the variables involved to achieve the greatest level of safety. Catching people who drive 31 mph down Jackson Avenue doesn’t improve traffic safety at all. Putting in red light cameras at insections with short yellow light times (like the 3.6 second yellow light at Louisiana and St. Charles) is far more about “gotcha” than it is about reducing accidents. Droning on and on about speed limits without regard to prevailing speeds shows a greater concern with rigid rules than safe outcomes.

    And saying you care about administration when you’re willing to assume everyone accused is guilty is trying to have it both ways.

  6. “Seeking Balance”: I value my constitutional protection of due process above petty traffic laws that are VERY technically enforced by machines.

    Tax payers in this city are being leaned-on more heavily with each passing day. Mayor Landrieu and other executive level city officials receive hefty paychecks to find legitimate solutions to issues such as budget strains, traffic safety, and spiraling crime – and if this crew continues to FAIL at ALL these tasks – why don’t we hold THEM accountable, rather than let them penalize us for their shortcomings.

    Owen, excellent article, and I encourage all citizens to refuse to pay these tickets – citing due process. If a majority (slim majority at that) did not pay these, they would simply go away, problem solved. Paying these fines invented out of thin air by the city is the only thing that legitimizes them.

    Mayor Landrieu should cop on, public opinion appears to be a landslide against them….then again, Landrieu doesn’t seem to believe he is accountable for any of the responsibilities of his position lately; up to and including answering questions and addressing the concerns of his constituents.

  7. Owen, I might add that only in New Orleans could a high level Police Commander receive profits from the issuance of automated traffic tickets and the system remain in place.

    Anyone who stands by a system with this history is asking for political corruption, back scratching, and government abuse.

    Why don’t you hand Landriue your checkbook and ask him to be gentle?

  8. How does one get a list of camera locations around the city? Yesterday, I found myself looking for speed limit signs, traffic cameras and photo-enforced signs more than I was concentrating on driving, particularly on Freret St., after I read comment on the speed cameras on Freret.

    I have taken Jackson Ave between St. Charles and Magazine as a route to my home for 22 years. Now I avoid Jackson Ave. completely and find other routes to get home. I also noticed that a camera is now at Jackson and Annunciation awaiting unsuspecting people going to WalMart and River Garden. I’ve not heard an outcry on that camera yet, but I’m sure there will be when the violations are finally processed, mailed and received. I don’t think this camera has been up long. Now, Jackson Ave. between Prytania and Tchoupitoulas is off-limits.

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