Friends will ask me what to do with the red light camera violation they just received in the mail. They ask me because I’m a criminal defense lawyer. The problem: red light cameras aren’t criminal offenses. They are considered a civil case. If that seems a bit strange to you, you aren’t alone.
How can the government give me a ticket for running a red light (or, turning right on red and not coming to a COMPLETE, TOTAL, NOTICEABLE stop) and it’s not a criminal offense? How can something that is usually done by the police, now be done via camera, and suddenly it makes it a civil violation? How did I get a ticket and I wasn’t even driving the car??? These are questions we’d all like answers to. The truth is, they aren’t giving you a ticket. It looks like a ticket, but it is actually a civil fine. The city is basically suing you for running a red light.
City government will say that they are only in favor of red-light cameras because they make the city safer. It’s all in the name of safety. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I am all about safety. However, if that is the city’s primary goal and they are willing to sacrifice our civil liberties to accomplish it, why let us drive cars at all? Why don’t we all walk to work or the grocery store? Wouldn’t that accomplish their purpose? The reality is no matter how many cameras, laws, or regulations are put into place, people are still people. We will never be 100% safe, no matter what we do. If red light cameras stopped red-light runners, they wouldn’t be giving out any tickets. But cities are, and conveniently, they are bringing in tons in revenue.
What makes me nervous, from my perspective, is the total disregard for our freedoms and due process. Benjamin Franklin stated, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” As we allow the government to chip away at our freedom, we are losing what people have fought so hard for over the past 200 years. I defend people’s rights every day. Part of my job is to make sure the government doesn’t infringe on our constitutional rights. These cameras and the subsequent “violations” certainly seem to be an infringement.
So, where do we draw that line with our freedom? Do we allow the government to infringe on our freedom for red-light cameras, but hey, we draw the line at cameras for speeding enforcement? Good luck. Slowly but surely our government has and will attempt to find ways to gain more power and tax us at greater lengths until we have no more freedom. We will slowly become America, the land of the “sort of free”. No one can guarantee us to be completely safe. But we do have guaranteed rights. We just have to stand up for them.