In Arizona, cameras that nab speeders record a murder, too

Controversy flares after shooting death of a worker inside a camera-equipped van.

Photo-based enforcement of speeding laws has its advocates and its opponents, like most things. But the battle over the technology has been especially pitched, never more so than now that an Arizona man has been killed in a drive-by shooting of a camera-equipped van.

The suspect in the crime has been charged with first-degree murder, with police stating that the alleged gunman knew someone was inside the van because its interior light was on. But even before Sunday's shooting, it was clear that Arizona's deployment of photo enforcement had tapped a reservoir of resentment – even vitriol – against a technology that some discredit as a government grab for speeding-ticket revenue or as a "Big Brother is watching you" violation of privacy.

In late 2008, a man attacked a photo-enforcement camera with a pickax, as the state was expanding its program, and some motorists have covered camera lenses to blind them. Arizona last fall became the first to employ a statewide system of photo enforcement for traffic scofflaws, but use of the technology is increasing throughout the US.

The system's defenders say its use is on the rise for two simple reasons: It improves safety, and it is an effective way to bring to justice those who disobey traffic rules.

"Having cameras everywhere is just one of the prices we pay for highway safety in modern life," says Robert Pugsley, a law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

Conflicting studies

The Arizona Department of Public Services cites a preliminary study, by traffic systems analyst Simon Washington at Arizona State University, showing that the number of injury-producing crashes related to speeding was reduced when the cameras were deployed. The success of cameras in reducing crashes is what led former Gov. Janet Napolitano to ask for an expansion of the program, says the DPS. The idea is to use traffic cameras – some of which are fixed and some of which are mobile – in locations at risk for speeding-related accidents, such as road-construction zones and freeway interchanges.

Speeding is a factor in nearly one-third of all fatal crashes in the United States, according to the DPS. Every year more than 13,000 people die from speeding-related collisions.

"The people who are against these cameras claim that we are doing this to save money," says DPS spokesman Jim Warriner. "But that is not true. The only reason is to make our highways safer."

Several studies cited at the libertarian National Motorists Association website, though, report an overall increase in crashes after cameras were installed at red lights in Virginia and North Carolina in the US, Ontario in Canada, and in Australia. Some Arizonans have complained that photo enforcement is a highway hazard, because some motorists slam on the brakes when they realize a camera is on them. The state, local governments, and the companies that make money off of photo enforcement are the only winners, they say.

Opponents also claim the program is unconstitutional because defendants don't get the right to face their accusers, but only a camera. It's true that a video or still camera cannot speak in court, but an officer of the law is there to testify about the use of the device, says the DPS's Mr. Warriner.

Mr. Pugsley, the constitutional law professor, concurs. "Given that the photo or video tape is merely evidence that officers use in court, but that the officer is there to corroborate, this practice does satisfy the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment," he says.

A vigilante act?

The shooting death of Doug Georgianni, a four-month employee of a photo-enforcement provider, has been charged to Thomas Patrick Destories, who police alleged pulled up next to the van where Mr. Georgianni was doing paperwork and fired five shots. Georgianni died later at a nearby hospital. Records show that Mr. Destories has not been photographed while speeding.

"We are shocked that the opponents of this practice could stoop to taking a life because they feel they have a right to speed," says Warriner. "They are focusing on the negative side of all this when they should be focusing on the positive."

Outrage against the practice began growing in September 2008, with news that the DPS was expanding the program to 60 fixed cameras and 40 mobile units around the state. Amid a backlash, the expansion halted in January at 36 fixed cameras and 42 mobile units. State legislators are considering legislation to dismantle the program.

One thing that bothers state Rep. Rich Crandall (R), a cosponsor of a bill to end the program, is that the photo radar is not just a stop-motion camera but that images are recorded almost as in a motion picture. He worries that someone's spouse may subpoena photo-radar records with the idea of searching for infidelity – a use that has nothing to do with traffic safety.

"Being monitored like that is the epitome of Big Brother," he says, in reference to George Orwell's ever-watchful dictator in his classic novel "1984." "And there are many who consider it an invasion of privacy."

Law enforcement officials are on record saying that Georgianni's death will not stop the program.

"If you hate photo radar, and you want to have an impact, you shouldn't be doing anything like vigilantism," Jan Strauss, a former police chief in Mesa, Ariz., told The Arizona Republic. "If you don't like it, go to the public forum. Start a public debate. Going out on your own, breaking the law doing destructive things, isn't the answer."

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