Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.

•••

The praise for the new "photo cop" traffic enforcement pilot program authorized by the Minnesota Legislature for Minneapolis and Mendota Heights is welcome ("A mechanical eye for speeders? Good," editorial, June 9).

The revival of a previous poorly designed and discredited traffic safety program, this one, known by some as "photo cop II," hopefully will be more effective, efficient and economical than its predecessor, which nearly two decades ago cost the city of Minneapolis dearly.

The prior undertaking, given indecent burials by the state and federal courts here, consisted of the city of Minneapolis setting up a series of cameras at high-traffic intersections to nab drivers going through red lights, warranting $142 tickets and costly demerits on their driving records and potential increases in insurance premiums.

The "photo cop" project was well-intended but deeply flawed. Its purpose was to save on expenses of law enforcement and personnel and conserve judicial resources while providing wide-ranging oversight and deterrence of red-light running.

But the salutary goals were marred by its poor execution. The city bought the cameras from a low bidder, and it showed — or didn't show.

The fuzzy photos were almost indiscernible. The tickets were issued to vehicle owners, regardless of who was driving: a family member, friend, employee, other permitted user or even a car thief.

To make matters worse, the ticketed owner had to prove that someone else was driving — a shifting of the traditional burden of proof.

The program also was imbued with a bit of racism as the cameras were principally located at inner-city intersections entering and exiting from downtown, heavily populated by people of color and poorer individuals.

These deficiencies were secondary to a threshold defect: The measure was deemed violative of the state Constitution by the state Supreme Court because it deviated from the statewide Uniform Traffic Code and was deemed unenforceable in a lawsuit brought by a ticketed driver aided by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The other shoe then fell, and it was a heavy one. A class-action lawsuit was brought in federal court in the Twin Cities on behalf of the approximately 15,000 drivers ensnared in the short-lived program, which resulted in a settlement approved by U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, yielding a refund of some $2.4 million to the ticketed drivers who paid fines, extinguishing the ones not yet finalized, removing all charges from the drivers' records so as to obtain reductions or refunds of increased insurance premiums attributable to the charges, along with requiring the city to pay the legal costs of the class-action members and contribute funds to driver safety education programming.

The Minneapolis project was a forerunner for similar ones around the country, some upheld by the courts and a few stricken on various grounds. Meanwhile, despite occasional murmurs, no significant effort had been made to resurrect it.

Until now.

But, as the Star Tribune Editorial Board points out, the offspring approved by the Legislature this spring, and tucked into the massive 1,400-page omnibus bill at the end of the session, addresses and seemingly alleviates those deficiencies.

The new measure is "photo cop" on steroids. It authorizes a four-year pilot program in two Twin Cities municipalities: Mendota Heights and Minneapolis, the site of the prior failure. It goes beyond just red-light running and extends to detect speeding violations as well, with cameras to be placed at various high-risk areas to be designated and within 2,000 feet of schools, along with authorizing the placement of them by the Department of Transportation near highway work zones.

Under the program, first-time offending drivers will be given a warning, and a ticket and fine for a second offense, although the fine can be dropped if the driver takes a driver education program.

Mindful of the prior problems that plagued the original "photo cop" program, Minneapolis and Mendota Heights ought to heed the oft-expressed admonition of philosopher George Santayana that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

It remains to be seen how the experimental program will work when it goes into effect next summer. But it first might have to overcome another potential legal challenge: The state constitutional "single subject" provision, which requires that legislation only pertain to one topic, even if broad, rather than a hodgepodge of unrelated matters like the omnibus measure seems to incorporate.

But if "photo cop II" survives and is properly funded, prudently devised and wisely administered, it could contribute substantially to traffic safety, reducing accidents, injuries and fatalities while conserving law enforcement and judicial resources and setting a precedent for expansion of the program to other communities in Minnesota.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities constitutional law attorney and represented the vehicle owners in the Minneapolis "photo cop" class-action lawsuit.