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Tennessee Attorney General Embraces Red Light Cameras
Tennessee Attorney General upholds use of red light cameras and speed cameras in the state.

Attorney General Bob Cooper
Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper, Jr. issued a pair of decisions last week endorsing the existing use of red light cameras and speed cameras in the state. The opinions were requested by state Representatives Vince Dean (R-East Ridge), a staunch advocate of automated ticketing, and Tony Shipley (R-Kingsport). In his opinions, Cooper confirmed that both the state legislature and the state courts have authorized the use of red light cameras.

In the case Minnesota v. Kuhlman, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the Minneapolis red light camera program because it did not have the sanction of state law (view ruling). Representative Shipley specifically asked whether the same could be said about cameras in Tennessee. Cooper said no.

"Because Tennessee statutory law specifically authorizes owner liability for violations detected by traffic light monitoring systems, local ordinances so providing are not susceptible to challenge on the preemption grounds identified by the Kuhlman court," Cooper wrote.

At the time the legislature adopted Tennessee Code Section 55-8-198, most media outlets in the state incorrectly reported that the bill placed restrictions on the use of photo enforcement. To the contrary, the measure was used to authorize widespread red light camera and speed camera deployment without the constituents of the legislators knowing what happened. The Tennessee Court of Appeals added its own endorsement of the legislature's move, stating that lawmakers obviously meant their approval for cameras to be retroactive (view decision).

In light of this, Cooper found little in state law to restrict the use of automated enforcement. He did, however, point out that the cities can only get away with reducing constitutional due process protections as long as the photo fine remains less than $50.

In a separate opinion (view opinion, 100k PDF), Cooper gave his blessing to the legislature's attempt to regulate red light cameras by having municipalities, traffic camera companies, state transportation officials and other interested parties work out a set of rules likely to codify existing practices. Lawmakers proposed this effort as a means of addressing constituent concerns by claiming they had voted to reform the way photo enforcement operates. The rules would later be incorporated into the contracts between municipalities and photo ticketing companies.

"The General Assembly may constitutionally require that, as a condition to contracting with a state agency or political subdivision, a vendor of goods or services involving surveillance cameras operated in accordance with Tennessee Code Annotated Section 55-8-198 must agree to incorporate into any such contract any subsequently enacted changes to that statute; provided, however, any terms that are incorporated into an existing contract due to statutory changes must be reasonable," Cooper explained.

Some members claimed that state and federal constitutional provisions protecting private contracts from being impaired by government action prevented the legislature from taking any regulatory action. Cooper rejected this argument.

"It must be noted that a contract provision requiring compliance with as-yet-unknown terms and conditions would not necessarily violate the constitutional 'impairment of contracts' clauses because the vendor, in agreeing to such a contract provision, would be doing so with the knowledge that future statutory amendments would be incorporated into the existing contract," Cooper wrote. "It is common for contracts to require compliance with applicable federal and state laws, rules, and regulations, including changes and amendments thereto made subsequent to the execution of the contract."

A copy of the attorney general's ruling is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Opinion No. 10-17 (Attorney General, State of Tennessee, 2/19/2010)

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