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EDITORIAL: Farming out traffic enforcement to unmanned cameras

For the past 20 years, Nevada has prevented cops from using unmanned traffic cameras to issue moving citations — and with good reason. The devices raise constitutional issues and have a track record of being abused by municipalities eager to pad revenues.

Yet the idea regularly resurfaces in Carson City, primarily due to the insistence of law enforcement lobbyists. Its latest incantation is Senate Bill 43, introduced on behalf of the Department of Public Safety and set for an initial hearing this week.

SB43 attempts to address objections to traffic cameras. The measure outlines how vehicle owners may appeal such citations and insists that warning signs be erected to signal the presence of the devices. The law even prevents the DMV from recording a camera ticket on a driver’s record.

Yet due process and Sixth Amendment issues remain.

The bill contains no real mechanism for ensuring the owner of the vehicle actually receives the citation. Short of incurring the costs of noticing suspects by certified mail or hiring process servers, a law enforcement agency has no means of verifying that those who fail to respond did indeed receive proper notification of the allegations.

Other states and jurisdictions have struggled in this regard. Officials in Arizona, for instance, admitted they were essentially powerless to act if a vehicle owner simply ignored a camera ticket. Lawmakers eventually banned the practice on the state’s highways, but several cities in the Grand Canyon State still operate the cameras.

On the website arstechnica, law professor Adam J. MacLeod highlights how camera tickets also raise questions about the co-mingling of both criminal and civil law. “Cameras do not always produce probable cause that a particular person has committed a crime,” he notes. “To get around this ‘problem’ … several states have created an entirely novel phylum of law: the civil violation of a criminal prohibition. Using this nifty device, a city can charge you of a crime without witness, without any probable cause determination and without any civil due process.”

To make matters worse, municipalities usually farm out the process to private companies that earn a piece of the loot collected and play a large role in determining which drivers receive citations. SB43 does mandate that “the evidence of the violation … must be reviewed for accuracy by an employee” of the policy agency in which the supposed violation occurred. But it doesn’t require an actual peace officer to sign off on the ticket. Nor is there any requirement involving proof of the driver, meaning the police will be sending out citations to vehicle owners without determining whether there is any evidence they actually broke the law.

The constitutional issues associated with camera traffic enforcement remain significant. Nevada lawmakers should tap the brakes on SB43.

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