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The city of Minneapolis, aided and abetted by the state Legislature, is trying to disprove Albert Einstein's adage that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."

In this case the thing in question is an effort to revive an ill-advised arrangement to use cameras as Minneapolis traffic cops. It ought to raise all kind of alarm bells for drivers, minority residents and city officials alike.

"Using cameras to catch Mpls. speeders" (editorial, Nov. 29) noted some but not all of the flaws in that program in calling for the Legislature to come up with a better plan.

The reincarnated proposal would authorize the state's largest city to implement a pilot program to use an array of strategically placed cameras to spot drivers exceeding the speed limit. It's one of dozens of programs and actions rightly aimed at deterring and catching those drivers at minimal economic outlay in order to combat the city's rising traffic fatalities — a trend accentuated by the declining number of police, which has essentially brought traffic enforcement in the city to a halt.

The proposal comes on the heels of a pair of unsuccessful efforts to enact enabling legislation last year. With newly composed legislative bodies and DFL majorities in both chambers, legislators have high hopes for passage in 2023.

The goal of proponents is that the camera "cops," along with some 86 other initiatives, would curb the growing number of traffic fatalities in the city, which reached 23 last year, the highest since 2007. Indeed, the aspiration is that traffic-related death and injuries can be eliminated in five years. Good luck with that.

While these are good motives for deploying "camera cops," there are a number of reasons the solons in St. Paul ought to pause before launching this pilot (or a spinoff aimed at red light runners).

A similar "camera cops" program was instituted by Minneapolis nearly 20 years ago with disastrous consequences. Unauthorized by the Legislature, the makeshift Minneapolis program was laden with pragmatic and Constitutional defects, including:

  • Low bidder apparatus yielding poor quality blurry pictures of the drivers.
  • The levying of a $142 fine on an owner of a vehicle even if someone else was driving it.
  • Imposing the burden on vehicle owners to prove they were not driving at the time of the snapshot.
  • Plus a dose of racism because the cameras were disproportionately placed in or near low income inner city areas populated largely by Black people and other minorities, rather than being equitably dispersed in more affluent — predominantly white — parts of town.

These defects and others led to the inevitable litigation that accompanies ill-conceived and poorly executed government programs. After a criminal traffic charge against one driver was thrown out in state court, a class-action lawsuit in federal court, presided over by Judge Michael J. Davis, claimed that the "camera cops" program constituted an unwarranted deprivation of due process and a breach of privacy among other things.

Months of litigation resulted, in 2008, in the scrapping of the system. More than $2.6 million in fines was refunded to some 15,000 drivers and vehicle owners, along with the payment of $400,000 in legal fees to the victorious attorneys, expungements of traffic records and a contribution by the city to driver training programming for youths.

Both the city and the state, the main intended financial beneficiaries of the boondoggle, paid dearly. Hennepin County tossed in $50,000 for its trickle of its ill-founded ticket revenue.

Unless the many flaws in that discredited program are corrected, reviving it for speeding or other driving violations is an invitation to more discontent and more costly, divisive litigation.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities attorney who led a team of lawyers for the class-action claimants in the 2008 "Camera Cop" case.