You've got mail – and a surprise traffic ticket

Most days, the mail at our house is fairly predictable – a blend of bills, unsolicited credit-card applications, charitable appeals, and magazines. But on a recent Friday, an envelope addressed to me threw a little excitement – not to mention puzzlement – into the mix.

"Boston Police," read the return address, printed in bold red and blue letters. Inside, a traffic ticket claimed, wrongly, that my car had no state inspection sticker. My options: either pay up – That'll be $50, ma'am – or request a court hearing. The ticket was issued at 5:30 p.m. at an intersection near my office, as I headed home. No officer had stopped me.

To be pulled over by a police car is undoubtedly an unnerving experience. But so is discovering that you've been ticketed by a phantom policeman, with no chance to say, "Excuse me, sir, but my sticker is in place, and valid until December."

This kind of faceless, voiceless arrest is perfectly legal. As Andrew Burke, a clerk in the Boston Municipal Court, explains, "If a police officer is standing at an intersection directing traffic and a vehicle goes by speeding, running a red light, or without an inspection sticker, it's allowable to send a ticket by mail."

Such tickets are becoming more common as an increasing number of communities use cameras to catch cars speeding or running red lights. Photo radar records the violation, and the registered owner receives a ticket in the mail. This high-tech road patrol has been popular in Europe for years.

As these electronic eyes churn out tickets, they become a cash cow. In Washington, D.C., automated photo enforcement has raised more than $16 million in fines since August 1999. Supporters say it also makes roads safer.

Critics, not surprisingly, cite constitutional and privacy issues. This spring, Hawaii removed its speed cameras. A lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union charges that the state's traffic-camera enforcement violated federal and state constitutions by giving drivers' Social Security numbers to a private contractor.

Meanwhile, back home, I requested a hearing to contest my ticket. I received a notice to report to Boston Municipal Court at 11 a.m. on a late June Thursday. There were 27 of us in this third-floor courtroom.Men made up more than three-quarters of the group.

We sat on four pews. There was nothing church-like about this setting, although one young man leaned forward, elbows on his knees, head in his hands, as if praying for deliverance from his alleged violation.

At 11:10, a magistrate and a clerk entered. We raised our right hands and collectively swore to tell the truth.

One by one, we took a seat facing the two men and pleaded our cases. I produced a photo showing the sticker on my windshield, along with the registration numbers. The magistrate paused, then said, "I find you not responsible." My record remains clean. Did the sun shine a little brighter on my way back to work, or was it just my imagination?

An hour in traffic court is an instructive experience. It's a chance to think about guilt and innocence, and to consider the cases that are dismissed and those that are not.

"Sometimes people come up with some fabulous stories," Mr. Burke says.

But at least they all have a chance to tell their story, embellished or not, in court. That right is especially important if the first knowledge of their alleged traffic violation comes through a ticket in the mail.

Such disembodied arrests may represent the wave of the future as speed cameras gain popularity. Tickets by mail serve as a reminder that George Orwell was right: Big Brother is watching all of us.

In the process, Big Brother is also sending a message: Drive carefully, and prepare to explain yourself – or pay up – if a roadside camera clicks in your direction or a street-corner officer plays "Gotcha!" with your license number. The long arm of the law is growing longer, reaching all the way to the post office.

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