Red-light enforcement cameras are constitutional and not a violation of due process, the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
The ruling, authored by the Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook, is a decision on photo enforcement programs with national implications.
The Seventh Circuit, which covers Illinios, Indiana and Wisconsin, held that issuing citations to vehicle owners or lessees without any evidence of who was actually driving the vehicle at the time of the traffic violation is constitutionally permissible.
Tennessee’s Court of Appeals ruled in August that Knoxville’s red-light cameras are not a violation of due process or equal protection under the law. Tennessee is covered by the U.S. Court of Appeals Sixth District.
Murfreesboro used Knoxville’s ordinance as a model, along with ordinances from Germantown, Gallatin and Red Bank, when writing its own.
“The Tennessee District Criminal Court of Appeals decision certainly supports Murfreesboro’s efforts to reduce the number of traffic crashes at key intersections in the city via an automated traffic enforcement system,” Murfreesboro City Spokesman Chris Shofner said at the time. “One way it does this is by settling the due process question by affirming citations issued for running red lights are civil and not criminal.”
The Seventh Circuit’s recent ruling that Chicago's red-light camera system does not offend due process rights affirms Tennessee’s appeals court ruling.
Chicago's photo enforcement program, like Murfreesboro’s red-light camera program, issues citations to the registered owners of vehicles that run red lights or violate speed limits. Of the 25 states where photo traffic enforcement is used, only programs in Arizona, California, Oregon and Colorado actually photograph the drivers of the offending vehicles.
"Is it rational to fine the owner rather than the driver? Certainly, so," Chief Judge Easterbrook said in the court's ruling.
"A camera can show reliably which cars and trucks go through red lights but is less likely to show who was driving,” Eaterbrook continued. “That would make it easy for owners to point the finger at friends or children – and essentially impossible for the city to prove otherwise. A system of photographic evidence reduces the costs of law enforcement and increases the proportion of all traffic offenses that are detected; these benefits can be achieved only if the owner is held responsible.”
The court also found that imposing a fine on the owner of the vehicle rather than the driver not only "improves compliance with traffic laws" but has the additional benefit of encouraging owners to take greater care in lending their cars.
“Owners will take more care when lending their cars and often they can pass the expense on to the real wrongdoer," the court’s opinion said.
The court also addressed the issue of revenues derived from photo traffic enforcement systems.
“That the city's system raises revenues does not condemn it," according to the judges' ruling. "Taxes, whether on liquor or on running red lights, are valid municipal endeavors. Like any other exaction, a fine does more than raise revenue: It also discourages the taxed activity. A system that simultaneously raises money and improves compliance with traffic laws has much to recommend it and cannot be called unconstitutionally whimsical."