7/31/2008Tennessee Appeals Court Embraces Red Light Cameras
Tennessee Court of Appeals issues ruling designed to encourage the use of red light cameras.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a ruling yesterday promoting the use of red light cameras throughout the state. A three-judge panel rejected a constitutional challenge to city of Knoxville's automated ticketing program filed by photo ticket recipient Ronald G. Brown. Brown argued the case on his own behalf after his Chevy had been photographed on September 18, 2006 at the intersection of Kingston Pike and Alcoa Highway. The city alleged the vehicle entered the intersection a split-second after the light turned red, and so it mailed a bill for $50. Brown told the court that because he had no choice but to pay the ticket and thereby admit guilt, or, if he was not driving, to inform on someone else who was, the system itself violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions.
Judge D. Michael Swiney decided the case in favor of Knoxville by first acknowledging that the city began its red light camera program without any authorization from the state. Brown's 2006 ticket was issued long before the legislature's enactment in 2008 of Tennessee Code Section 55-8-198, but Swiney argued that the legislature's approval was retroactive. Lawmakers authorized cities to issue photo tickets as civil penalties that sidestep the most important protection provided by the state constitution under the criminal code -- namely that the recipient of the punishment must be proved to have been the one who actually committed the crime.
"We, therefore, conclude that while the proceeding in the present case is 'traditionally considered to be civil in nature,' because the fine imposed is intended to be punitive and a deterrent, constitutional protections are triggered," Judge D. Michael Swiney wrote.
Although "triggered," Swiney easily swept aside the constitutional protections once the civil nature of the violations was established. He found first that as long as the fine remained no more than $50, no jury trial would be available to the defendant. Next, because the city had a right to declare the owner of a vehicle automatically liable because of the 2008 law, no due process protections applied.
"The city code merely permits the responsible vehicle owner to shift the responsibility for the violation to the actual driver of the vehicle in certain circumstances," Judge Swiney wrote. "This does not mean that the owner of the vehicle was not in violation of the city code."
Swiney wrote that this was not a violation of due process because the city had to prove "every element of the case." In other words, the city had to prove that Brown owned the Chevy, and that the Chevy was photographed on September 18, 2006. It did not have to prove Brown did anything wrong -- mere ownership of the vehicle constituted the civil crime. Moreover, the court found this arrangement did not violate the constitutional protections against self-incrimination because Brown did not need to admit guilt -- he was automatically guilty.
"Again, this misses the point," Judge Swiney wrote. "City Code Section 17-210 does not make the driver of the vehicle liable. Rather, it is the owner of the vehicle who is responsible for a red light violation, regardless of who actually was driving."
View the full text of the decision in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.