2/28/2009Arizona Officials Battle Over Jail Time for Photo Tickets
Arizona attorney general urges jail time for photo ticket recipients.
Arizona's top state-level prosecutor yesterday challenged the most prominent county-level prosecutor's interpretation of the state freeway speed camera statute. State Attorney General Terry Goddard issued a memorandum to the Department of Public Safety and to county prosecutors declaring his interpretation of the law would allow motorists to be locked behind bars based solely on a photograph generated by the fixed and mobile cameras operated by the Australian company Redflex Traffic Systems. Goddard took action in direct response to Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas who announced Monday that he would not bring criminal charges against anyone accused by a Redflex machine of driving more than twenty miles per hour over the speed limit.
"Mr Thomas' conclusions do not appear to be supportable as a matter of law," Goddard wrote. "Subsection D [of the photo radar statute] is silent regarding whether a criminal conviction can be considered by the department of transportation in determining whether the person's driver license should be suspended or revoked, and Subsection D makes no mention of a rule of preclusion preventing the state from using photo-radar as part of the evidence utilized to prove criminal excessive speed."
Since there is no explicit prohibition on criminal prosecution under the photo radar statute, Goddard argued that a county attorney had the full discretion to bring or not bring such a case. Goddard, the former mayor of Phoenix, suggested his legal reasoning was guided by what would happen if such cases were not prosecuted.
"Public safety and common sense require that reckless speeders be held accountable before a criminal judge and not be allowed to turn our highways into 'pay to race' mayhem scenes," Goddard said.
To date, a total of 1823 "excessive speeding" criminal cases have been filed by the state police. These class three misdemeanors carry a sentence of thirty days in jail, license points and a $500 fine. Both sides in the dispute acknowledge that the $181 civil tickets issued to those accused of driving less than 20 MPH over the speed limit are valid.
Thomas responded sharply at a press conference yesterday suggesting a political motivation behind Goddard's attack.
"I have to admit that I'm surprised by Mr Goddard's remarks because I'm used to being in the opposite role," Thomas said. "I'm used to hearing him saying that I'm too tough on crime -- that's what he said during the election last year when he supported my opponent... So this is quite a role reversal today and I guess it will take some getting used to."
While both officials claimed that they were not expressing their personal views on speed cameras, it is clear that the hot-button political issue shaped the dispute. Goddard, a Democrat, celebrated the DPS arrest of individuals accused by machine of exceeding 100 MPH on the freeway. Thomas, a Republican, suggested the radar cameras offered flimsy and unreliable evidence.
"Let's be honest," Thomas said. "We remember the photo radar debate when this was passed. It was passed primarily -- at least based on the public comments -- as a revenue generating mechanism... And to the extent that they hold motorists accountable for speeding by giving civil traffic fines, that's fine... But you can't use it to put them in jail. If (legislators) want prosecutors to do that they darn well better say so and they should say so clearly. Because that is the most serious thing a government can do
to a citizen is to brand them a criminal and threaten to put them in jail."
Thomas insisted that despite the guidance offered by the attorney general, he absolutely will not prosecute people for criminal violations based solely on the evidence of a ticket issued by a for-profit contractor unless he is instructed to do so "in plain English" by the legislature.
"I'm surprised that the attorney general of this state would have such a view of civil liberties that he would basically be egging on the criminal prosecutors of this state to go and try to put people in jail and brand them as criminals and put them in jail when there is no plain language in our statutes authorizing that," Thomas said.
A copy of the attorney general's memorandum is available in an 850k PDF file at the source link below.