It turns out that Colorado lawmakers have devised a system in which their car license plates don’t show up in the database when speed cameras catch them. Because of that, they never get speeding (or parking) tickets and are free to be repeat offenders.
The plates issued to the 100 state lawmakers and representatives elected to serve Colorado are preventing them not only from receiving photo radar tickets but also collection notices from past due parking tickets.
The legislative plates are not entered into the Colorado DMV database, so when photo radar cameras catch these drivers speeding, they never received tickets. That’s because of a loophole that doesn’t allow the City of Denver to electronically cross-reference those plates with a home address.
Now CBS4 has uncovered the same glitch with parking tickets. Lawmakers who don’t pay their parking tickets aren’t sent to collections. The problem is the City of Denver’s collections relies on the state DMV database for addresses.
This one example illustrates a point that I made three years ago about the surprising amount of controversy generated by speed and red-light cameras.
In Ohio, some local communities (such as my own Cleveland suburb) have either installed red light and speeding cameras in places or are thinking of doing so. It is remarkable the level of outcry that this has generated. People may not care that much about the government violating their privacy and civil and human rights with abandon, but use technology to catch speeders and red light runners and they are up in arms and suddenly become highly concerned about due process and the presumption of innocence, even though it is far more cost-efficient to use cameras for this purpose actual police officers.
This issue has caused such an outcry that the Ohio House of Representatives has passed a bill by a 61-32 vote to ban such cameras everywhere in the state and the bill has gone to the senate. I expect it to become law.
I have written before (see here and here) as to why I think such cameras are a good idea and I don’t want to repeat those arguments here. But I do want to highlight one point that I made then in their favor that the recent Colorado action gives evidence for.
[T]he camera system seems to have the advantage of complete impartiality. It does not care what kind of car committed the offense, whether it is a dull old minivan or a flashy red sports car. More importantly, it does not discriminate among drivers either. The camera does not know or care if you are old or young, rich or poor, black or white, attractive or homely, well-spoken or inarticulate. It does not care if you are a person of influence or a nobody. Cameras do not profile people.
In other words, these cameras allow us to actually practice the ideals of justice, completely blind to everything except whether one has committed the offense or not.
And I think that is precisely the problem. People who are not poor don’t like an impartial justice system because the current system works in their favor. I referred to an article by George Monbiot in The Guardian when the same controversy came up in the UK. As I wrote back in 2010:
Most people think that they somehow have an edge that they can use to escape paying the fine if they are caught by real live traffic police. They think they are important enough or look respectable or influential or attractive enough, or that they can manufacture some plausible excuse, that will get them off the hook. It is just the young and poor and people of color who tend to be out of luck when it comes to finding ways to escape.
In other words, traffic cameras commit the worst offense: they do not respect class privilege. I have to agree with Monbiot’s conclusion, though in the US I would expand his group from ‘conservatives’ to all members of the better-off classes: “The real reason why Conservatives hate the enforcement of speed limits is that this is one of the few laws which is as likely to catch the rich as the poor: newspaper editors and council leaders are as vulnerable as anyone else. The Conservative reaction to speed cameras suggests that they love laws, except those which apply to them.”
The problem with Colorado’s move is that it only favored legislators and that was too narrow an exemption. Perhaps Ohio should learn from them and create a more explicitly class-based system where license plates could be coded in such a way that those who were well-to-do would not have their license plates show up in the databases. If only the poor and marginalized were caught by them, then we would be back to the normal justice system and there would be no problem with installing cameras.