8/10/2010South Carolina: Town Defies State Law Banning Traffic Cameras
Ridgeland, South Carolina begins speed camera program in direct defiance of state law and two attorney general rulings.
Ridgeland, South Carolina wants to deploy a speed camera to ticket out-of-state drivers as they pass through the seven-mile stretch of interstate within the tiny town's limits. The plan angered the state legislature to such a degree that it unanimously enacted legislation in June to prohibit photo enforcement -- except during declared state emergencies (view law). The Ridgeland town council refused to back down.
"As of yesterday, the iTraffic system is up and running," Mayor Gary W. Hodges said last Tuesday. "We are going to make this community so that when people come through here on I-95... they know they're going to be safe... Whatever we need to do as this evolves, we're going to do it."
The town council unanimously voted to use $60,000 in drug interdiction funds to purchase the used vehicle that the for-profit firm iTraffic will use to generate citations. Bill Danzell set up iTraffic in Ridgeland after his previous photo enforcement venture, Nestor Traffic Systems, went bankrupt. The new venture looks to target the estimated 1000 vehicles that pass through the town's 70 MPH zone at 81 MPH or more each day -- enough to generate $40 million.
"About the money," Hodges said. "I want everyone to rest assured that the town handles the money from the citations. The town and the town alone handles the money. So please keep that in mind."
The problem that Hodges faces is that, since 1996, state Attorney General Henry McMaster and his predecessors have made it clear that photo enforcement is illegal in South Carolina (view opinion). A specific law was enacted in June for the explicit purpose of prohibiting the mayor's plan. State Senator Larry Grooms wrote to McMaster asking whether iTraffic and Ridgeland were violating the law by using certified mail to send speeding tickets to photographed drivers. The attorney general's office responded on June 28 that under the new law, this is not allowed under any circumstances.
"Moreover, as specified in R. 312, '[a] person who receives a citation for violating traffic laws relating to speeding or disregarding traffic control devices based solely on photographic evidence must be served in person with notice of the violation within one hour of the occurrence of the violation,'" McMaster wrote ( view opinion, 61k PDF file). "There is no provision for use of certified mail in such circumstances."
Hodges disregarded the ruling in the August 5 town meeting.
"There is the impression that a recent amendment to a state law banned this program," Hodges said. "That particular law banned unmanned cameras. Our cameras are fully manned at all times and operated by a certified policeman. There's no such thing as an unmanned camera. The state law basically said, 'citations issued based solely on photographic evidence.' In our case, the photographic evidence is the backup. The primary evidence is the officer's observation. And that's pretty well commonly accepted across the country."
In a second letter issued July 9, the attorney general's office shot down this argument as overly contrived.
"When interpreting the meaning of a statute, certain basic principles must be observed," McMaster wrote. "The cardinal rule of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and give effect to legislative intent. Typically, legislative intent is determined by applying the words used by the General Assembly in their usual and ordinary significance. Resort to subtle or forced construction for the purpose of limiting or expanding the operation of a statute should not be undertaken.... in the opinion of this office, photographic or video camera evidence may not be used in assisting an officer in observing and reviewing a traffic violation except in those limited circumstances set forth by R. 312."
'Limited circumstances' refers to a declared statewide emergency. No such emergency exists. The emergency clause was included in the legislation to make the amendment germane to the underlying bill and serves no practical purpose. By requiring personal service at the time of the violation for any use of traffic cameras, the law fully prohibits automated ticketing machines.
Hodges set an August 15 open house for the public to view the new iTraffic system. A copy of the July 9 attorney general ruling is available in a 70k PDF file at the source link below.