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I'll be watching you

Lost in all the hullabaloo over the Supreme Court's acceptance of certiorari last week in the Wal-Mart class action suit was the 8th District's decision in Lycan v. City of Clevelandin which the 8th District reverses the trial court's denial of class certification in a lawsuit against the city's traffic cameras.

Okay, file this under It's All About Me:  while I've never worked at Wal-Mart -- although the latest glance at my retirement folio grimly presages future employment there -- I have gotten the little letter from the City telling me that the camera had caught me flaunting the law.  (Relax, it was for speeding, not running a red light.  I may flaunt, but I'm a small-time flaunter.)

 The first couple of times, I paid the fines.  The second couple, I didn't.  It's not cheap:  the ticket is $120, and if you don't pay within thirty days, they tack on another $40.  That's not a lot, given the six-figure income I pull down by representing indigent defendants, but still, I've got to watch my pennies.  The Lycan case is focused on a flaw in the law, which stated that car owners would be responsible for the fines unless they showed someone else was driving.  Last year, though, the 8th declared that drivers of leased cars couldn't be held responsible, and the class action suit seeks to recover the money paid by drivers of leased cars until the city council fixed the loophole after the decision last year.  That group of leased-car drivers includes moi, so the afore-referenced retirement fund might be getting a needed boost.

The debate on the cameras represents an interesting admixture of issues of money, safety, and liberty.  Liberty interest?  Well, it seems that the idea of government cameras watching your car is too much for some.  A group calling itself the Campaign for Liberty is fighting camera laws in  New York, Missouri, and Chicago, while the Liberty Restoration Project is battling to have Kansas City's cameras declared unconstitutional.  Virginia's ten-year experiment with cameras ended in 2005 when the legislature passed a law prohibiting them, several sponsors citing the "compelling need and the absolute requirement to defend individual liberty." 

All this talk about liberty might come as surprise to anyone who's travelled to Europe recently.  London, for example, has over 10,000 closed-circuit cameras monitoring its public streets.  (How effective that is turns out to be another matter; a study there a few years ago concluded that there was no relationship between how many cameras a borough had and its rate of crime-solving.)  And having a picture taken of your car doesn't exactly conjure up images of an Orwellian dystopia.  It's not as if the police are tracking your movements, as they are in the case of planted GPS devices, a concept with which, as I blogged about earlier, most courts have no trouble. 

As I've mentioned before, my inclination is to believe that when people say it's the principle, not the money, it's the money, and that's true here, too.  The justification for the cameras is safety, and if people truly believed that the cameras were making the streets safer, they'd probably be less disposed to question them. 

That's where it gets dicey, though.  Red-light cameras, obviously, are supposed to cut down on people running red lights, and accordingly reduce the number of intersectional collisions.  The evidence that they are effective in doing so is ambiguous at best.  A study in Philadelphia showed that red light violations dropped to virtually nothing after cameras were installed at two major intersections, while a study of Virginia Beach showed that those violations tripled after cameras were removed. 

Other studies have failed to bear out such dramatic results; in fact, several have indicated that while the cameras reduce intersectional collisions, they increase rear-end collisions, because drivers are more prone to stop suddenly when the light turns yellow at an intersection they know is being monitored.  In fact, some studies show that lengthening the time of the yellow light, and having the light turn red for everyone for a second or two, is an equally effective method of reducing intersectional collisions.  Some municipalities, however, have actually decreased the time of the yellow light, to produce more violations.

Why?  Well, that gets us back to money.  Most cameras are actually installed and operated by private vendors, with the vendors getting either a percentage of fines, or a flat fee.  In the latter case, if the cameras work too well, it can render them cost-prohibitive:  why pay a vendor $2,000 a month to monitor a particular intersection if you're collecting less than that in revenue from fines for red-light violations?  That's exactly what happened in Dallas two years ago:  as drivers figured out where the cameras were, they stopped running the lights, and the city shut down a quarter of the cameras because they weren't paying for themselves. 

And the twisted incentives aren't only on the part of the government.  An article last week in a Kentucky paper carried the headline, "Red light cameras working in Clarksville, police chief says."   Well, they certainly were in one respect:  they'd generated a million dollars in revenue in less than two years.  The safety evidence was a bit dicier:  intersectional collisions fell by 23, but rear-end collisions increased by 35.

Oh, and that million dollars?  The city got $400,000; the rest went to Redflex Traffic Systems, an Australian based company.  The article concludes on this note:

Buoyed by the program's early results, police plan to expand the program to two other intersections, Highway 76-Interstate 24 and Fort Campbell Boulevard-Lafayette Road. Both are in the top 10 in number of accidents.

Ansley said they have to wait for Redflex's approval, because any new intersections would have to be profitable for the company to cover the cost of the cameras.

All that led Radley Balko over at The Agitator to a simple observation:  "Red Light Cameras Working Exactly as Intented:  They're Making Money."

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