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Red Light, Green Light PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jay Beskin, BT Contributor   
July 2020

Cameras win, drivers lose

OPix_JayBeskin_7-20ne game that all children love, which can be played without special equipment or expenditure, is Red Light, Green Light. One child is chosen to be the traffic cop. He or she stands facing away from the other kids, who are lined up some distance back.

In the more popular version, the traffic cop, with his or her back to the other players, says, “Green light.” At that, the other kids begin inching (or racing) forward until the cop suddenly shouts “Red light!” and whips his head around. Anyone caught still moving is sent back to the original starting line. The winner is the one who is never caught moving and eventually makes it all the way up to the traffic cop. He or she tags the cop and then becomes the new cop.

Cops are under a lot of scrutiny these days, but so are red lights and green lights. In fact, right about now the police are eager to embrace any strategy that allows them to do their jobs effectively without having to embrace actual criminals or suspects. One result of this shift in attitude has been a readiness to patrol remotely and technologically rather than up close and personal.

Years ago the opposite was true. Policemen feared automation no less than practitioners of other trades. No one wants to be replaced by a machine, and unions have been aggressive in communicating that message. But now a lot of cops are willing to take the chance of letting camera eyes replace human eyes for certain offenses, allowing officers and citizens to regard each other from afar, practicing what we might call a law-enforcement form of “social distancing.”

Thus the local policeman is only too happy to allow red light cameras to do most of the work regulating driving on city streets. Rather than having to stop all manner of aggressive or surly drivers and confront them in volatile street-corner situations, officers can rely on the “little lens of the law.” Those cameras sit on their perches and photograph any vehicle that crosses the threshold after the light changes to red. Then some company in Arizona processes the picture and decides which ones should be candidates for tickets.

What happens next is open to a degree of controversy. Well, we know what is supposed to be the policy. A local policeman, an authorized member of the force, is supposed to look over each and every picture individually and reach a judgment. Only the ones that look guilty to him are then authorized to be sent to the person whose license plate shows up in that snapshot. (The question of whether the owner of the automobile should be responsible for a red light violation if he was not driving the car is a subject for another day.) If indeed this structure is scrupulously observed, then we have a local lawman making a decision to prosecute, as the law requires.

The problem is that pretty much no one believes that is actually being followed as regular procedure. Do local police forces have sufficient manpower that they can assign people to painstakingly examine each photo and arrive at a fair conclusion? Most people assume that they do not. If indeed that is the case, then essentially this is an act of bad faith on the part of municipalities, rubber-stamping whatever the company in Arizona sends along.

With this kind of a broadly held perception in place, citizens become understandably resentful. Which just fits right in with the image of police perjuring themselves and planting evidence, practicing brutality and intimidation -- the whole litany of anti-police sentiment that has become a commonplace in our angry streets.

City managers know this, but they like the revenue from this program. And now that the cops have learned to like the program for their own reasons, there is a united front. But the struggle between bureaucracy and democracy is never pretty. The result is that in addition to fighting one “public relations” front with protesters and sometimes rioters in the street, municipalities and police forces wind up fighting in court against ticked-off middle-class automobile owners who either know a pro bono lawyer or happen to be one themselves.

The result of this is that petitioners cast bread, not tea, upon the waters and they try to run cases up the flagpole to higher state courts to see if they can get a judge or three to sign on to their vision of red light cameras as an unwarranted intrusion and a corruptly managed surrogate money-making scheme without proper police supervision. Occasionally they win a round on one ground or another, and then the cities have to file the appeals. And so it goes, on and on. The decisions are usually issued without the entertainment value provided by hearings.

Which city is the focus of the most recent litigation? You guessed it, none other than our beloved Aventura. One of our residents advanced an interesting legal theory based on the fact that some cities in Florida set one standard for how far over the line a driver must be in order to be charged, while others set another. So if you drive in one town and cross the line by six inches, you might not receive a summons, but another town might nail you on the technicality. Our plaintiff argued that this made for unequal enforcement of traffic law, which is against Florida statute.

The judges were not impressed, saying that there were no statutory differences between localities, only enforcement differences. For example, the law everywhere is that one may not drive faster than the speed limit, but some locales might be more disposed to look the other way and give you a “grace period” of seven-to-nine miles over the limit before the siren starts wailing behind you. That is well within the discretion of each jurisdiction and doesn’t represent an essential disparity within the law.

So if Aventura has been wrestling with defining itself as a special placer, hoping to be known for something special, it seems to have found its answer inadvertently. Soon we will be a household name from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea. Immediately after some angry householder strings together a chain of curse words about those insidious, invidious, annoying, irritating, dispiriting, depressing gadgets lording it over our intersections like a zombie Stonehenge and swallowing our wallets like an urban Sasquatch, we will hear a familiar word: Aventura. Too bad!

We were hoping to be known as a place to have fun, but instead we have become the Red Light District.

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