State tries taking brakes off Photo Cops program

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The state on Monday filed an appeal to get Minneapolis’ Photo Cops back in business.
In mid-March a Hennepin County District Court judge ruled that Minneapolis’ Photo Cops violate Minnesota law, but the city doesn’t intend to let go of the million-dollar system and the 16 percent decline in accidents at its monitored intersections.

Minneapolis introduced the Automatic Traffic Law Enforcement System last summer with cameras at 12 intersections. The system sent a ticket to the owner of a vehicle when it is photographed running a red light.

Regardless of who was driving the vehicle at the time, the registered owner will receive the ticket and could be fined $142.

In addition to the District Court’s ruling that Photo Cops violate Minnesota law, Minnesota’s American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Charles Samuelson said his organization is more concerned about “the injustice of it.”

The Minneapolis statute concerning the Photo Cops differentiates between the offenders of different traffic violations — that a “driver” must stop at a stop sign and “vehicular traffic” must stop at red lights. The state’s appeal contends that the Photo Cop statute “makes no mention of the driver of the vehicle, nor does it make the identity of the driver an element of the offense.”

It also includes clauses on how the owner can avoid paying the fine, by proving that the car was stolen or the driver at the time assumes responsibility. Samuelson and Howard Bass, the attorney arguing against the Photo Cops, said they believe the law violates a citizen’s right to due process.

“You’re supposedly innocent until proven guilty,” Samuelson said.

University law professor Stephen Cribari said an owner being held liable for his or her vehicle could be compared to a bar owner being held liable for bartenders serving alcohol to minors.

“I don’t think (the court) would be outraged by holding the owner of a vehicle liable for the actions of the vehicle under an appropriately worded statute,” he said. “And it seems to me this is an appropriately worded statute.”

The city statute makes it a crime for a vehicle — not a driver — to run a red light. Therefore, the government needs only to prove that the vehicle failed to stop, which can be proved with Photo Cops’ pictures, according to the statute.

“Had the City Council intended the driver of the vehicle to be prosecuted for the violation, it would have made the driver responsible for the offense when it enacted (the law),” according to the state’s appeal.

The appeal contends that holding an owner directly liable for a vehicle does not violate due process. In cases that would create small offenses, Cribari said, courts don’t have a problem with holding an owner liable, and defendants are also responsible for proving innocence by providing an alibi or making a case for insanity, distress or duress.

Because of the city ordinance, the government must show only that an owner’s vehicle ran a red light, Cribari said, and so is not giving up its duty to prove the law was broken.

Samuelson and Bass also said they believe the city’s ordinances violate state law.

“State law requires that the driver get the ticket; that’s clearly not what happens here,” Samuelson said.

They also require that an officer give a ticket to the driver.

“Now the ticket’s coming to you in the mail,” Samuelson said.

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