Civil Disobedience

Where Radar Cameras Fear To Tread

Arizonans aren't big fans of being nagged about the weight of their feet on their accelerators.


Arizonans aren't big fans of being nagged about the weight of their feet on their accelerators.

A few years ago, county officials set up a mobile radar speed sign along the road to my old house. It looked lonely out there amid the tumbleweeds with only coyotes and rattlesnakes for company. Sure enough, within a day, I was treated to the sight of sheriff's deputies and county workers clustered sadly around the device, which had—apparently in despair over its isolated condition—leapt head-first into an arroyo.

State residents were also unhappy when speed cameras sprouted along the roads with ticket books attached. In 2008, Arizona officials signed a deal with Redflex, an Australian photo-enforcement company, to pioneer the first statewide system for robotically extracting money from people's wallets—oh, and "to modify driver behavior and make our roads safer," as Redflex creepily puts it. It wasn't particularly plausible that officials were chasing people down for their own good, but the appearance in the state budget of a line item for revenue from "Highway Photo Radar" was a bit of a giveaway about the real motivations for the contract.

Pasting Post-It notes over lenses of the Aussie speedcams was one tame but effective response. So was dressing up in Santa suits and dropping gaily decorated gift boxes over the machines. Silly String and spray paint worked just fine for obscuring the cameras' views, though smashing the spying little snitchbots with pickaxes had a more permanent effect.

One particularly creative scofflaw took to driving around the Phoenix area wearing monkey and giraffe masks. As it turned out, Arizona law requires that tickets be connected to drivers, not just vehicles. Few wildlife photos appear in the Department of Motor Vehicles database, complicating the process of serving the "offending" motorist within the required 90 days. State officials responded with a surveillance operation to identify the dissident; this project almost certainly cost more than they finally extracted.

It is possible to push back too hard. One annoyed driver far overstepped the boundaries of good judgment when, in 2009, he shot up a manned photo enforcement van and killed the operator. But the most effective response turned out to be throwing the tickets the cameras generated into the garbage.

"Only 39 percent of those ticketed drivers (432,367 of 1,109,035) knuckled under and paid up," Car and Driver magazine reported in 2010. The people trying to link drivers to all of those fast-moving vehicles were a tad "overtaxed," The New York Times added. Britain's Telegraph observed that "a mere $37 million of the $127 million in fines and surcharges has been collected."

There goes that revenue line item.

If process servers felt overtaxed, so did Arizonans in general—in a more literal sense, since they were on the business end of the devices. Their resistance paid off. After Gov. Janet Napolitano left office in 2009, Gov. Jan Brewer pulled the plug on the radar camera scheme.

That was the statewide program. Peoria and Tempe soldiered on for a while, then dropped their programs in 2011. By 2013, Scottsdale was reduced to concealing cameras "in tan metal boxes that kind of resemble big trash cans," according to the Phoenix New Times. The alternative weekly was happy to publish the cameras' locations along with a convenient map.

Tucson voters banned traffic photo enforcement in 2015 by an impressive 2-1 majority. State legislators, thwarted several times by local lobbyists, passed a more limited ban in 2016. But Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who could apparently tell which way the wind of popular sentiment was blowing, followed up with a ruling that photo ticket operators contracted with local governments have to hold private investigator licenses. Which none of them had bothered getting until that point because, honestly, nobody had ever thought of that particular requirement before.

Scottsdale is among the few remaining communities in the state still using speed cameras. The city even allows process servers to tape citations to people's front doors—or claim to have done so—to satisfy the requirements for notice. But as of the beginning of 2017, ignoring that kind of "alternate service" can no longer result in a suspended driver's license.

Most state officials have obviously received the message. Arizona drivers don't want robots monitoring their behavior and sending them bills when they're trying to get from point to point across relatively empty counties larger than some East Coast states. We can work out our own driving etiquette, thank you, and at a lower cost to boot.

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  1. Every state should require police witness a crime and issue a traffic citation. Then every defendant is guaranteed a jury trial with no opportunity for “just paying the fine”. With a max fine amount and no jail time authorized for said speeding offense, the prosecutors would be forced to limit how many money making offenses they want to take to trial and how many to dismiss.

    This scam of making moving violations tied to vehicles because the state cannot have an officer testify to a traffic violation committed in their presence is unconstitutional. Every American is entitled to a jury trial and defense counsel. The costs is too high, so many states have set up money making schemes to get drivers to “just pay the fine” and not contest the camera/video of the vehicle.

    1. All they need to do is call it “civil” and ta-da fuck your rights.

  2. [citation needed]
    Ha ha.
    But really, one hesitates to ask for sources, knowing of the Fifth Amendment and various statutes of limitations.

  3. I’m kind of willing to compromise on this one.

    They can put a camera on the road by my house if I can put one in the police chief’s office.

    1. David Brin wrote an interesting book, Transparency, which could have been a lot shorter. But he had an interesting take on all the cameras all over. What upsets people is not being watched in public, but being watched secretly in public. Too many stories about police zooming in on bedroom windows are babes on the strete instead of looking for actual crime. He had two suggestions:

      Allow the public full access to all public cameras, don’t limit access to just the police.

      Allow public access to the cameras which the police are watching at any given moment. Possibly a camera in the room where the police are watching cameras.

      Of course neither one will ever happen. But either would go a long way towards curbing police abuse. I think getting rid of public cameras is unlikely, now that everyone thinks they actually do solve crimes. But letting the public see them might have two things going for it:

      It’s fair. There should be no secrets with public cameras.

      It adds a zillion eyeballs to cameras, making them much more likely to catch crime, while putting police back on the streets.

      1. Crime goes down because people commit less crime not necessarily because of cameras or more police or more severe penalties. A people that live by and demand Rule of Law is the best way to manage crime, be prosperous and maintain freedoms. The Nanny-State just takes more and more Liberty without anything but an illusion of better protection.

        Cut police budgets down to a level where they have to make real decisions on spending an guarantee cameras are left off the list. Let private parties install and maintain cameras on their property, if they want and provide police images if a crime takes place.

        1. Better yet, go to victim prosecution for real harm only. Get rid of government police, prosecutors, courts, and jails, and the incentive to criminalize everything goes away.

          Government’s hallmark is incompetence. I have come to that conclusion after years and years f observation, and decided that the shoe is on the other foot: anyone claiming government competence must show it, and not with hand waving about market failures caused by government incompetence.

          No matter how annoying it would be to have to hire your own crime scene investigators (in actuality, probably handled by insurance companies) or your own court (usually in agreement with the suspect, but not required if you can prove they won’t cooperate), it can’t be any worse than government malfeasance and incompetence and social justice bias.

          I also realize it ain’t gonna happen in my lifetime, but as long as it’s my fantasy, there it is.

  4. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
    I would like to confront my accuser, your honor. (the camera is placed on the witness stand)
    Your honor, please let the record show the witness did not accept the oath.
    So, please tell the court where you were when the alleged offense occurred. (long wait)
    Your honor, I would like the witness declared a hostile witness based on refusal to answer questions. Thank you.
    Now, leading questions are allowed, so is it true you were promised compensation for your “testimony”? (still no answer)
    Your honor, I move for a declaratory judgement based on lack of a viable witness.

    1. I don’t buy the “you can’t confront the camera” argument at all.

      Would you make that argument about a jewelry store robbery that was caught on tape? Say it was clearly Jay and Silent Bob, based on the security video at the place. And they had traffic cam videos of Jay driving his personal car to and from the store. And they have video from the apartment complex of them carrying the jewelry.

      But they never recovered any stolen goods, and they don’t have any eye witnesses.

      Are you really going to claim that the security cameras are the accuser?

      No, the camera isn’t the accuser.

      In the speed trap case the accuser would be the company that operates the speed trap cameras. And they are going to have professional expert witnesses to testify on their behalf.

      This is one of those legal arguments that starts with a conclusion (I don’t like traffic cameras issuing tickets) and backfills a legal argument to arrive at that conclusion. I’ve seen it made with great passion, but that doesn’t make it any more salient.

  5. It is possible to push back too hard. One annoyed driver far overstepped the boundaries of good judgment when, in 2009, he shot up a manned photo enforcement van and killed the operator.

    Sooooo… are you going to give us an example of pushback you think is too hard, or just more feel-good anecdotes?

    1. Nice. Sense of humor that is ….

  6. “Only 39 percent of those ticketed drivers (432,367 of 1,109,035) knuckled under and paid up,”

    I am the 61% that never received a citation… or did I throw it in the trash? I do not remember, I do not recall.

  7. You get rid of the radar cameras, and the next thing you know you got people parking perpendicular to traffic and anarchy and stuff.

    1. Yep, first you cut back on the ceaseless monitoring of everybody’s behavior, and the next thing you know we are just running around raping each other and shooting heroin with two needles at once.

      Just like when God took that vacation back in 1939. Look away for one second and everything goes to hell.

  8. The idea of any corporation, domestic or not profiting from these robo-highway robbery schemes is detestable.
    For profit justice, automates as well? No!

  9. The idea of any corporation, domestic or not profiting from these robo-highway robbery schemes is detestable.
    For profit justice, automates as well? No!

  10. Ws shooting up the van REALLY too far?

    1. Well yeah: the taxpayers paid for that van.

  11. Couple days before being transferred out of Germany, friend of mine got one of these RADAR camera tickets in the mail.

    He sent them back a picture of the money.

    1. That’s clever. I woulda sent a pic of my middle finger, but I grant that there’s little subtlety there.

  12. California, not having learned anything from Arizona’s speed cam blunder, now has a bill in the legislature (AB 342, sponsored by San Francisco of course) which will allow speed cams into California. (Right now all we have is red light cameras.) The bill just passed thru its first committee vote yesterday. I hope Californians will inundate their state legislators with phone calls against the cameras.

    While I’m on this soap box, I also want to mention that if you get a red light camera ticket from any of the cities in LA County, you can ignore it, as long as you TOTALLY ignore it and make no contact with the court. Skeptical? Do a search on red light camera no consequence.

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  15. If you throw your ticket in the trash in Ohio, they’ll suspend your license the day after it was due.

    1. Sounds like Ohio is populated with a bunch of ass holes like New York and California.

  16. I was in Arizona around 2008 attending a conference in Phoenix.

    We rented a car at the airport and my colleague drove the three of us to our hotel. After midnight, nobody on the roads, and then we saw the flash from one of the cameras as he drove past it at 10-15 MPH above the speed limit.

    This prompted a discussion about the utility of said cameras, and of their ability to collect the fine from someone who lives in Pennsylvania and has a PA driver’s license.

    Of course, the bottom line was that he might as well just pay the ticket and expense it back to his employer.

    20008 Phoenix, Arizona was a monument to failed expectations. You would dive past block after block of new, identical construction. One for the strip mall with Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, etc storefronts, One for apartments, then another strip mall, etc. All of them empty and not likely to be populated any time soon. As you got closer to the mountains, the construction petered out until you were just driving past empty streets full of vacant lots. Housing booms sometimes go bust……

    1. Hmm, back in 2003 I got a ticket on the PA turnpike – 60 in a FUCKING55!.

      From an actual cop.

      Didn’t pay it – I was living in CT at the time and held an AZ driver’s license. The ‘bailiff’ (or whatever they call they sheriffs out there) sent me a letter swearing he’d get a bench warrant for my arrest. Apparently nothing ever came of that – I’ve been stopped for speeding a couple times afterwards and no mention of a warrant.

      So, I think we can consider these two tickets as canceling each other out.

      1. Yeah, I got one for 61 in a 55MPH zone on the PA turnpike a few years back. 80 is the socially acceptable speed, of course, but Cops gonna cop.

        The worst stretch is when you cross the bridge and get into that small stretch between PA and NJ Turnpikes (Florence). People think it is no-man’s land, but Florence actually pays their entire city budget with revenue from tickets on the two mile stretch between the EZ Pass booths. I’ve seen the cop cars set up every 1/2 mile, so the first one pulls the first person over, then the driver behind them thinks they are safe and speeds up, until the next cop in line gets them. Once passed a total of SIX cop cars, each with a victim pulled over, just on that one tiny stretch of road.

  17. Behavioral psychology already figured this out three quarters of a century ago. You don’t have to ticket every body to get people to slow down their driving. Just have a minimal presence of cops and hand held radar guns, and ticket the few blatant speeders, and people get the message.

    Try to use traffic laws as revenue generation (something genetic to Arizona) and you will lose. The state is far too rural for that. Insisting that people stick to 65mph along a 100 mile straight highway in the middle of nowhere is silly.

    p.s. Full disclosure, I once got a ticket in Bumblebee, Arizona (I shit you not) for driving 66 miles an hour. One mile over the speed limit. I briefly broke the 65 barrier for a second or two while passing a slow vehicle.

  18. Arizona is home to ATS and Redflex, the two largest ticket camera racket companies. They have enough state legislators “in their pockets” to prevent passage of laws totally banning the speed and red light camera money grab rackets. The rackets have been restricted to some extent and there are no more speed cameras on state highways, but there are still FAR too many of the speed and red light cameras around the state that issue most tickets to safe drivers who endangered no one. Arizona legislators need to ban the rackets entirely.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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