Faced with police opposition and a committee that appeared poised to kill the idea, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, pulled her bill back for further work. It continued the rocky path the camera array concept has had since it met failure in the courtroom during a Minneapolis trial in 2005 and 2006, and at the Capitol.
Hausman’s contention that experience in 25 states shows cameras can save lives and reduce serious crashes was countered Wednesday by concerns about invading people’s privacy and sending off tickets without sufficient evidence. “In town after town, in study after study, red-light camera enforcement has been shown to be effective in reducing violations and accidents, ” Hausman told the House Transportation Policy Committee. “They save lives … the statistics are overwhelming.”
But state and city law enforcement representatives contended that the cameras are counterproductive.
“This will create more ill will toward police than almost any other enforcement program,” responded Dennis Flaherty, representing the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. “Revenue-driven enforcement is absolutely detested by the public.”
Minnesota’s only experience with photo-cop cameras was in Minneapolis from July of 2005 through March of 2006, when the city issued tickets generated from cameras placed at 12 high-volume, high-accident intersections. Total accidents in those intersections were reduced 31 percent compared to a comparable period of time before the cameras were installed, according to a report given to the committee. Tickets sent to registered vehicle owners cost violators $142.
A court challenge from one ticketed driver, Daniel Kuhlman, made its way to the Minnesota Supreme Court. It ruled that the city had no authority from the state to institute such a system, and that the ordinance presumed the registered owner to be the driver unless the owner could prove otherwise. The court said that “eliminates the presumption of innocence.”
The city was required to reimburse 15,000 drivers who paid tickets, a settlement of $2.6 million. Subsequent attempts to give cities the authority to use the technology have run into civil-rights objections and have not been successful at the Legislature.
This time around, Hausman and other supporters of red-light cameras were assisted by lobbyists and a lawyer for Redflex Traffic Systems, which manufactures and sells the cameras to cities around the country. Its North American headquarters is in Phoenix.
The lawyer, Craig Buske, was called to describe how the system would work. Cameras on both sides of the intersection would produce a series of four photos and a 12-second video, showing the violation, the license plate and the driver. He said employees review the footage and refer it to the police department.
“The final decision about whether or not to issue a violation … is left to the law enforcement agency, ” Buske said. If the driver is not the registered owner, he said, police could decide whether to do further investigation to determine who the driver was.
Supporters of cameras cited a 2011 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a group supported by auto insurers. It found that cameras reduced deaths by about one-fourth in large cities where they were installed. According to the company’s lobbyist, red-light cameras are in operation in 543 cities in 25 states.
St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, who spent many years teaching students to drive, supported installing the cameras. “It’s a safety issue, and also, it’s a matter of resources. We don’t have the resources … to have a cop on every intersection.”
Flaherty, representing the state’s police officers, and Brian Rice, representing the Minneapolis Police Federation, said the cameras have created problems in other cities where private vendors were paid commissions based on tickets. They said the systems can create rear-end accidents when drivers stop abruptly, and officer-initiated traffic stops allow officers to check for drunk-driving and other offenses.
When DFL Rep. Erik Simonson of Duluth joined Republican members in opposing the measure, it appeared that the committee was about to vote it down. “I am concerned about due process rights, ” Simonson said.
Hausman then asked that the bill be laid over, rather than put to a vote. Committee chairman Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, who supports the measure, said he feared it was going fail. He admitted that chances for a rebirth were difficult but added, “Everything always has a prayer around here.”