The Riley County Law Board deserves plaudits for its decision Monday not to explore the idea of deploying “red light cameras” within its jurisdiction.
The demerits of the idea substantially outweigh the potential benefits.
The cameras, mounted above intersections, exist in some jurisdictions as a technological effort to catch and ticket people who run red lights. In such circumstances – and they are not uncommon – the camera is triggered by the tardy car, snapping a photograph of its license plate and forwarding that to law enforcement. At least in theory and presumably in practice, a ticket is then written against the listed owner of the plate.
To the extent the devices actually deter red light runners, the pluses are not insignificant. Those pluses begin, presumably, although we’ve seen no data, with safer intersections. Efficiency is also a plus. As noted during Monday’s presentation by law board member Wynn Butler, installation of the cameras would reduce the demands on departmental patrol officers, and possibly reduce future manpower needs.
As laudable as those goals are, a majority of board members appropriately agreed that it’s impossible to get past the largest negative. That negative is the presumptive nature of guilt the devices imply. When the camera snaps a picture of the license plate, a ticket is sent to the recorded owner of the vehicle, not to the driver. There’s a simple reason for that; the camera cannot distinguish who is actually driving the vehicle, and therefore who is responsible for the violation. Thus the whole process forces the ticket recipient to establish his or her innocence. Anybody who has ever loaned his or her car to a teen-aged offspring or to a college friend should be able to see the inherent unfairness of that method.
Our justice system is founded on the opposite precept, the presumption of innocence. When officers write tickets for red light (or other offenses), they do more than check the license plate; they check the drivers license of the person actually behind the wheel. That allows them to guarantee that the appropriate violator is being cited. County Atty. Barry Wilkerson noted as much in his argument Monday against the devices, strongly suggesting that tickets written by cameras would not stand up to constitutional scrutiny. He’s right.