By James W. Cushing
Special to the Legal
In 2005, Philadelphia started its participation in the red-light camera program. Per this program, cameras have been set up at high-risk intersections in the city in order to effectively catch motorists running red lights. So far, the cameras have been set up around the city, including the intersections around City Hall and at a few intersections along Roosevelt Blvd. Presently, a debate is ongoing in Harrisburg as to whether to continue and/or extend the red-light program in Philadelphia and into about a dozen other Pennsylvania cities.
There is no doubt that the red-light program has brought millions of dollars to Philadelphia in traffic fines and arguably has made our roadways safer; however, the question as to whether the program is constitutional remains outstanding. I have written about this issue before, in 2009, and, since that time, there has been little discussion regarding the constitutional aspects of the red-light cameras.
The constitutional issues are pretty clear. A traffic violation is a summary criminal offense (see: 18 Pa.C.S.A. Section 106(c); Stumpf v. Nye, 2008 Pa. Super. 122 (2008), Commonwealth v. Henry, 2008 Pa. Super. 20 (2008), and Commonwealth v. Gimbara, 2003 Pa. Super. 394 (2003)). The burden of proof the commonwealth must meet, even for summary criminal offenses, is beyond a reasonable doubt (see Commonwealth v. A.D.B., 752 A.2d 438, Pa.Cmwlth. 2000 and Commonwealth v. Banellis, 452 Pa.Super. 478 (1996)). Logically speaking, then, the burden of proof for the commonwealth for the summary criminal offense of a traffic violation like running a red light is proving it beyond a reasonable doubt.
Despite the clear law described above, pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3116(b), motorists caught by the red-light program are presumed to be liable and have to prove their own innocence. Clearly, the burden of proof under the red-light program turns the traditional American jurisprudence of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head. The single biggest reason for the constitutional issue is that the photographs taken are only of the rear of the car, as opposed to the face of the driver, capturing only the license plate and make and model of the car. At least if the photographs were of the driver’s face, there would be convincing proof of who the driver was who ran the red light. As it stands now, the ticket for running a red light under the red-light program is assessed to the owner of the car photographed from behind, regardless of who the actual driver was at the time of the violation, despite this not being the case for other traffic violations.
I have been told that the photographs are not taken of a driver’s face to protect his or her privacy, however that has no logical basis, as the license plate and make and model of the car reveals just as much information about the owner of the car as photographs from the front. Additionally, no one sees the photograph except for PennDOT, the owner of the car and perhaps the court and police. Somehow, I simply do not think opposing basic American constitutional jurisprudence is worth the cost of allegedly protecting privacy.
As the debate on the red-light program continues in Harrisburg, I hope that before any decision is made, some consideration is made of the constitutional issues described above and that our rights are protected. Allowing our rights to deteriorate in this limited way without opposition may be a harbinger for further erosion. Now that we have the opportunity to address this issue again, I hope the debate on the red-light program highlights this very important issue.