The use of motion-activated cameras to enforce speed limits and red lights has become more ubiquitous in the 21st Century. Red light cameras, as they are commonly called, take pictures of automobiles when they enter the intersection while the light is red. Speeding cameras, though much less common in the U.S., use similar technology to photograph motorists who exceed the speed limit. The cameras, usually mounted on or near traffic signals in busy intersections, also photograph license plates in order to identify and then send a citation to the offender.
In the interest of due process, a law enforcement official typically reviews the photographic evidence to make sure a violation has occurred before a citation is sent. And, similar to traditional enforcement of traffic laws, most red light camera systems allow motorists to be in the intersection while the light is red for about a half-second before issuing a citation (which also reduces the urge to slam on the brakes when approaching a yellow light when a camera is detected).
For an overview of how states regulate the use of automated enforcement cameras, see "State Traffic Camera Restrictions."
Controversy Over Red Light Cameras
While law enforcement groups and traffic safety advocates claim red light cameras (and speeding cameras) save lives, critics say such cameras actually increase accidents and are more about boosting municipal revenues than making roads safer.
The U.S. Dept. of Transporation's Federal Highway Administration (FHA) conducted a study of red light camera systems in 2005, concluding that such systems increase highway safety while reducing crash-related costs. The National Motorists Association directly challenges their study, claiming such cameras are ineffective, costly and in violation of due process.
Much of the controversy related due process of the law has to do with the way evidence of speeding or running a red light is verified, since it is collected by a machine, and how the violation is served. Los Angeles County Superior Court, for example, ruled that photo enforcement of traffic laws is unenforceable because there is no live witness to testify against an offender. However, most jurisdictions verify photo evidence with a traffic officer before issuing a citation.
Also, there is some confusion over whether or not the citation must be served in person, since traditional speeding and red light tickets are handed out by the officers who personally witness the offenses. Mail service of citations generally has been upheld as lawful, but usually only if the defendant has the chance to acknowledge receipt of the citation or requests personal service. Failure to respond to a mailed photo enforcement ticket typically results in a default guilty judgment against the offender.
Federal Law & Regulation
In a 2008 appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, car owners in Chicago claimed the city's red light camera system violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment. They received a $90 citation in the mail for running a red light (someone else had been driving their car at the time).
The federal judges ruled against the appellants, stating the following in their opinion:
"No one has a fundamental right to run a red light or avoid being seen by a camera on a public street."
Therefore, federal courts have affirmed the right of municipalities to use speeding and red light cameras. Additionally, lawsuits challenging the use of private companies to operate red light cameras have been dismissed or defeated.
As of 2011 (and with a compliance deadline of 2014), states have adopted the National Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). These guidelines address how yellow light timing durations are set, which may help resolve some of the arguments by motorists claiming they were cited for going through intersections with unreasonably quick yellow lights.
Per federal regulations, tickets are issued only if the driver enters the intersection once the light has turned red.
Consult an Experienced Traffic Ticket Lawyer
If you have been cited for a speeding or red light camera ticket, you may need an experienced traffic ticket lawyer. A skilled attorney who specializes in defending traffic cases will evaluate all the evidence to ensure that your legal rights are protected. Remember, red light camera tickets can be expensive. Speak to a skilled lawyer in your jurisdiction today.