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Red-light cameras are constitutional, U.S. appeals court rules

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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."

Read more from:
District Court, Murfreesboro, Public Policy, Red Light Cameras, Traffic
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Members Opinions:
January 06, 2009 at 5:51pm
If a police officer did not physically witness the traffic violation, I can't see how it can be legal. That is always the excuse when you call to report a hazardous driver or other incident not witnessed by an "officer" of the law...
I plan to fight if I am ever served with notice of a camera charged fine.
January 06, 2009 at 9:45pm
That's why they call it civil instead of criminal. And that's why they can't put it on your driving record as an offense.
January 06, 2009 at 11:06pm
Wow. This makes it all better now. What exactly are the " benefits achieved" ? All I have to say is more cameras to film all aspects of public life......... safety through surveillance.
January 06, 2009 at 11:52pm
Big Brother is watching you!
January 07, 2009 at 6:54am

"Santa's helpers disable Red-light cameras in Tempe"


January 07, 2009 at 8:00am
I've said it before and I'll say it again - Don't run the red light and you won't have your picture taken - how hard a concept is this to understand?
January 07, 2009 at 9:14am
The socialist state of MN threw them all out of the state. They ruled them all unconstitutional. Should I ever get one the tickets I will be looking for their argument for my cort date.
January 07, 2009 at 11:33am
I guess a lot of things could be ruled "legal", but that doesn't mean the people want them. A 10 MPH speed limit would save lives, and probably be "legal". Anybody want that? We need to be VERY careful who we vote into office.
January 07, 2009 at 8:29pm
When a vehicle is issued a parking ticket, it is usually done without knowing who actually parked the vehicle in the space. And the ticket is issued to the registered owner of the vehicle. If the vehicle is parked in certain restricted areas i.e. a fire lane, it can be towed and "owner's expense"! So how is issuing a ticket for a vehicle running a red light any different? People - we are not talking about a huge fine that would backrupt anyone - it's
$ 50! And an owner should know who was driving their vehicle at the time the vehicle went thru the red light. Comparing red light cameras to lowering the speed limit to 10 MPH is rediculous! I agree with Wil2hike - Don't run the light and you have nothing to worry about!
January 09, 2009 at 2:13pm
Good point lupusman and I totally agree. I think some people just want to complain for the sake of complaining!!!!! Negative attitudes and unhappy lives!!
January 09, 2009 at 2:50pm
If you do not pay the fine, there is no criminal charges, but they report it to a collection agency for payment. If you do not pay, this will count against your credit.
February 24, 2010 at 3:41pm
$50... WHAT!!! lupusman and vdanr, I just got one in San Diego, $446.00 + $57.00 (administrative, if I want to go to traffic school) + $27.00 actual traffic school= $530.00!!! This is MORE THAN HALF OF MY MONTHLY SALARY!!! We have all seen idiots trying to 'beat' red lights. That is NOT me! My speed, as recorded by the camera was 19mph. I suffered a nanosecond of inattention and BOOM! In 33+ years of driving, this is my first moving violation. Do the facts that this is my first offense; that my speed clearly shows I was not willfully breaking the law; or that the fine is a TREMENDOUS hardship to me matter??? NOT ONE BIT! As I told the person I talked to at SDPD, I did this; and I want to pay a fine ($100 would certainly be a sufficient deterrent)... BUT, $500.00!!! The SINGLE light I was caught at (4503 violators) generated over $2.25 MILLION in 2009! 38% to state of California, 36% to city of San Diego and 26% to county of San Diego (SD Union-Tribune). How have we gone from Thomas Jefferson to THIS??? Forgive me, but if we continue to be the proverbial 'frogs in boiling water' and just accept this incremental encroachment on our liberties, we truly have lost sight of what being a true American is all about. While the cameras themselves, I agree, probably cannot be challenged constitutionally, I do think the punishments can be. If a multi-millionaire robs a bank -while he will certainly be able to afford better attorneys- if he is convicted, he will receive the same punishment as I would, if convicted of the same. If that same millionaire runs a camera-ed red light, he will receive perhaps 1/100th the punishment I was given. I truly think THIS IS unconstitutional and MUST be challenged. I confess, I was one of those who all but cheered when I saw the flashes go off -WHEN IT HAPPENED TO SOMEONE ELSE! I am not that way now. If it happened to me, IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU! And when/if it does, you will feel just as governmentally-raped as I. Oh, one side note, the SDPD person I talked to assured me that the city actually LOSES money on these cameras (discrediting the SD U-T's pie chart altogether) and the cameras exist ONLY to increase traffic safety. But he then made a not so teensie-weensie slip, "For every camera that is profitable, there are several 'non-producers'" AND, "You should be thankful you got it now; next month they're going up to $600.00" Hmmmmm...
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