Showing posts with label red light cameras. Show all posts
Showing posts with label red light cameras. Show all posts

Saturday, January 25, 2020

What do Greg Abbott, Croatia, the Roman Emperor Hadrian, ancient Hebrews, 6th century Greeks, Hammurabi, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders all have in common?

"Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
- Jesus Christ, The Lord's Prayer

What do Governor Greg Abbott and the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature have in common with Croatia, Rome's openly gay emperor Hadrian, an ancient Hebrew religious celebration, 6th century BC Athenian Greeks, Hammurabi, as well as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders?

They all implemented (or in the case of the Democratic presidential candidates, want to implement) large debt forgiveness programs that boosted their popularity and helped resolve problems deriving from intractable income inequality.

Starting in Texas, last year the Governor signed legislation to abolish Texas' Driver Responsibility surcharge, eliminating a whopping $2.5 billion in debt for around 1.4 million people, overriding past concerns that doing so would be unfair to those who'd already paid. Governor Abbott has also signed legislation to ban red-light cameras that eliminated penalties for nonpayment of old tickets, not to mention bills to eliminate $1.3 billion in outstanding toll road fines and fees and to pay student loans of peace officers.

But there are all sorts of historical examples of government-funded debt forgiveness programs dating back to the beginnings of government. Hammurabi canceled public debts four times in response to civil unrest, and when he "died in 1749 BC after a reign of 42 years, his successor, Samsuiluna, cancelled all debts to the State, and decreed that all tablets should be destroyed except those concerning traders’ debts."

Famously, in the Bible, "Jubilee" was the term for an ancient, once-every-50-year Jewish tradition celebrated during the first millennium BC in which public debts were forgiven and prisoners and slaves were freed.

In the 6th century BC in Athens, the lawmaker Solon implemented the "Seisachtheia" laws (try saying that three times fast!) which "cancelled all outstanding debts, retroactively emancipated all previously enslaved debtors, reinstated all confiscated serf property ... and forbade the use of personal freedom as collateral in all future debts."

Here are a couple more I heard recently on The History of Rome podcast that Grits began to plow through during my recent surgery recuperation: After defeating Marc Antony in 27 B.C., Octavian (aka, Augustus) burned all debt records from before the battle of Actium, thus wiping out debts prior to the civil war that ended with his ascension to power.

And upon assuming authority after Trajan's death, the Roman emperor Hadrian earned the goodwill of the people by forgiving all public debts, to the amazement and scorn of a disdainful Senate. Despite these spendthrift policies, which also extended to earning the allegiance of the legions through large pay increases, Gibbon recorded that Hadrian's reign constituted "the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous."

And of course, there are modern examples besides in Texas. In 2015, Croatia engineered debt forgiveness including debt to banks, telecom and utility operators for its 60,000 poorest citizens in an effort to give them a fresh start.

Now we can add Sanders and Warren's plans to forgive student-loan debts to the list. Although that was the newshook that made me dig up these historical analogies, Grits doesn't want to get too bogged down in the pros and cons of that proposal. I probably agree with it; maybe you don't; this isn't the place to debate why. Obviously, this blog has been far more concerned with eliminating criminal-justice debt, which is something I think about quite a lot.

These massive debt forgiveness campaigns were all, in a sense, unfair to those whose debts weren't forgiven. Certainly, in the examples from ancient Judea and Athens, slave owners surely were unhappy to watch their property walk free. But in the larger scheme of things, these programs were also a) economic boons and b) incredibly popular, generating excitement and loyalty among their beneficiaries and boosting the images of their proponents. Indeed, a cynic might contend these policies were undertaken by politicians simply aiming to ingratiate themselves with the public. (OTOH, if you're someone whose debt was forgiven, who cares?)

Leaving politics aside, though, one could also argue that all these examples were necessary correctives to oppressive government debt policies which were also unfair and ultimately, untenable.

Perhaps student-loan debts should only be the first step toward a long overdue 21st century Jubilee.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Ending red-light cameras freed up police time in Austin

When the Texas Legislature eliminated tickets based on red-light cameras earlier this year, they freed up a great deal of time among officers at Austin PD who evaluated the photos. Here's how the process worked before Austin shut its cameras down in June in response to the new legislation:
Once cameras are installed, videos of potential violations are submitted to the Police Department for review. The Police Department determines if a violation has occurred and, if so, a notice is sent to the registered owner of the vehicle and the case is filed in Municipal Court. Municipal Court is responsible for the due process and administration of the cases filed.
In 2018, according to City of Austin performance measures, APD reviewed 36,116 images taken by red-light cameras, but only filed cases 35.56 percent of the time, rejecting nearly 2/3 of the cases.

In 2017, only 12.8 percent of images reviewed by APD resulted in cases being filed.

While considering the department's latest request for more officers, City Council should ask Chief Brian Manley how much staff time (civilian and sworn) was spent vetting photos to separate the crap from potentially real violations. Police time spent evaluating tens of thousands of images was a hidden cost, and now those officers can focus on other duties.

Along with reductions in Class-C-misdemeanor and pot arrests, this deleted duty enhances the city's ability to reorganize existing work to meet higher priority public-safety goals. That's a smarter approach than adding new positions and should be part of the staffing debate.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Scaling back justice debt biggest #cjreform accomplishment of 2019 #txlege

Texas justice reformers will spend the next couple of years lamenting what the Texas Lege DIDN'T do in 2019 - e.g., reduce marijuana penalties, pass the Sandra Bland law, close the dead-suspect loophole to the Public Information Act - or else frustrated by new criminal penalties boosting sentences for petty offenses.

But it's worth giving legislators credit for what they DID do on #cjreform, and by far the most important measures relate to providing relief from justice-system debt:

Abolishing the Driver Responsibility Surcharge: The Texas Fair Defense Project estimates that $2.5 billion in justice-debt will be wiped off the books on September 1st when HB 2048 takes effect, and some 1.5 million people will be eligible to have their drivers licenses reinstated.

Eliminating red-light cameras: While a few cities have lengthy contracts which will keep red light cameras operating for years to come, the Legislature forbade new ones and eliminated the ability to deny vehicle registration or license renewal for nonpayment. These cameras affect on safety is dubious, at best, and are viewed by locals as revenue generators.

Limited automatic driver's license suspensions: HB 162 would end the practice of searching driver records to suspend licenses of people driving without them. Now, such administrative suspensions based on a government database search will be limited to people whose licenses are suspended for DWI, and those would be limited to 90 days. The Washington Post last year reported that Texas has more people with suspended licenses than any other state. This new law and abolition of the Driver Responsibility surcharge should go a long way toward knocking that number down.

Defined "undue hardship" in debtors prison cases: In 2017, the Texas Lege approved legislation to make it easier for municipal judges and justices of the peace to waive Class C fines and authorize community service. But many local judges had been defining the term "undue hardship" narrowly to avoid waiving fines. Amendments to SB 346 define that term so that more fines will be waived. This was a cleanup bill, but quite necessary: Although more than 50,000 people had fines waived in the 2018, for example, more than ten times that number sat out their Class C fines in jail.

Two of these - surcharge abolition and eliminating red-light cameras - were pushed by reformers for 12 years before finally passing.

Overall, Grits is disappointed with the 86th Texas Lege, and particularly the Texas Senate, which produced scarce little reform legislation of consequence and killed most of what came over from the House. These bills amount to a consolation prize. But as my father likes to say, that's better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Texas among states where former red-light camera exec says company gave illicit gifts, bribes

Reported the Chicago Tribune last week, "A fired executive of Chicago's beleaguered red light camera company alleges in a lawsuit that Redflex Traffic Systems doled out bribes and gifts at 'dozens of municipalities' in 13 other states and says he is cooperating in an ongoing federal investigation." Former sales executive Aaron Rosenberg told the paper "that during his tenure Redflex 'bestowed gifts and bribes on company officials in dozens of municipalities within, but not limited to the following states: California, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Florida, New Jersey, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia.'"

Among Texas municipalities contracting with Redflex are Austin, El Paso, Plano, Corpus Christi, Grand Prairie, North Richland Hills, Hurst, Port Lavaca, League City, Carrollton, Killeen, Mesquite, and Longview - or at least those are the ones Grits could uncover via a quick online search. This 2008 press release said Redflex operated cameras in "39 communities" across the state. It will be interesting to learn in which ones the former executive alleges the company "bestowed gifts and bribes" to local officials to secure their contracts. This simmering issue could quickly heat up once the fellow starts naming names to the feds.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Municipal court issues: Surcharge waivers, scofflaw programs and bills of cost

The March 2013 issue (pdf) of The Recorder, which is the newsletter of the Texas Municipal Court Education Center, contains three items (at least ) that may interest Grits readers.

A story on page one deals with the failure of Harris and many other counties to issue a "bill of costs" accompanying criminal court judgments. (See this Grits post, which was referenced in the article, along with this followup and an explanatory document published soon thereafter by the Office of Court Administration.) Many counties, apparently, have either not been issuing bills of cost or have not been doing them properly. This is a sleeper issue that Grits still suspects may balloon before too long into a Very Big Deal.

Another front-page article deals with "scofflaw" programs wherein cities seek to collect traffic fines by flagging them for the county to prevent the driver's next vehicle registration. The programs have been largely unsuccessful and counties have frequently balked, declining to endure the reduced revenue, longer lines and angrier customers for a policy that only benefits municipalities. This issue came to a head in Houston over red light camera tickets.

Then on p. 14 of the newsletter is a feature on "Court ordered waiver of surcharges for indigent defensants," detailing precisely what judges need to do to waive Driver Responsibility Surcharges under a statute passed in 2009, including a model order for judges to use. (Confusingly, but importantly, there is also an administrative indigence program at DPS through which surcharges may be reduced, but not entirely waived.) If you're a Texas judge or defense attorney who deals with surcharges, IMO it'd border on legal malpractice not to familiarize yourself with the program and to help indigent defendants avail themselves of it.

Grits won't besmirch this beautiful afternoon by spending time summarizing each of these items but anyone interested in those particular topics will want to read the related articles.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Red-light cameras in Houston and the price of democracy

Some in the Houston media are giving the mayor and city council heat for a proposed settlement with its red-light camera contractor (ATS) - delayed for two weeks at the Wednesday city council meeting - that may eventually cause taxpayers to bail out the contract, which was supposed to be paid solely with red-light ticket fines. But under the circumstances, the settlement seems like a reasonable, if not an inevitable result.

Here's the extenuating circumstance: A citizens group gathered by gathered signatures to put the issue on the ballot, and a majority of Houstonians voted against red-light cameras. Later, a federal judge said the plebiscite couldn't override the city's contract with the red-light vendor, but the majority of city councilmembers, including the mayor, decided to succumb to the will of the voters. So the city council first made an unpopular decision, was rebuffed at the polls by their constituents, and now faces expenses associated with undoing a hastily implemented contract, which turns out to have just been a bad idea that's caused them nothing but grief.

Casting another fly in the ointment, brothers Michael and Randy Kubosh, who launched and funded the referendum drive against the cameras, got the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday, the day before the city was to consider the settlement agreement, to make them a party to the suit in order to challenge the judge's ruling that the plebiscite was illegal. That prompted the city attorney to recommend against the settlement with ATS unless the Kuboshes dropped out of the suit. The council delayed the decision for two weeks to sort things out.

What a mess. Politically, the Kuboshes have won the red-light camera fight, with even camera proponents like the mayor now toeing the no-more-cameras line. Legally though, their fight has morphed from one over taking down red-light cameras to a different, unrelated battle over the limits of initiative and referenda, and the new focus could disrupt their original political objective. I'm not sure quite how I feel about that. Part of me wishes they'd have declared victory and moved on.

From Grits perspective, given the city's contractual obligations and federal court rulings in the case, the settlement looked like a good deal. Kuff points out that, with some $3 million in the bank, "the up front payment and most of the first year’s payment after that are covered. The city – presumably, an agent on their behalf – would take over collection duties from ATS. We’ll see how that goes." So if the taxpayers are on the hook, it won't be for at least another couple of years, and maybe not then depending on collection rates.

How much might taxpayers eventually have to pay? The total owed is $4.8 million, but a local TV station reported the city had $2.3 million in the bank while the Mayor's office told Kuff they had $3 million in that account. So taxpayers could be on the hook for $1.8 to $2.5 million judging from that range of estimates. Mistakes can be costly, in politics and life. OTOH, in the long run Houston drivers will save a LOT more than $2.5 million in fines from having the cameras taken down, and they pay taxes, too.

(BTW, Kuff mentions another upcoming Texas plebiscite on red light cameras: "Finally, in red light camera news elsewhere, League City residents will vote on whether or not to extend that city’s contract with a red light camera company. The contract runs through 2014, and a proposition about it will be 'in the next special municipal election', whenever that is. Red light opponents have a pretty good track record in these elections, and I’m sure they will be gunning for this one as well.")

The red-light camera fad is an example of seeking criminal-justice solutions to engineering problems out of essentially a financial motivation. Lengthening yellow-light times at those intersections by one second would do more than cameras and tickets to reduce accidents, but that wouldn't have generated the new revenue stream. (They can and should still lengthen yellow-light times at problem intersections, in fact.) Perhaps it was a costly lesson, but if the settlement gets done, Houston can chalk up that $1.8 to $2.5 million to the price of democracy.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Lege raided red-light revenue, shorting trauma center hospitals

Money from red-light cameras designated for Texas trauma hospitals isn't actually making it to the intended recipient, the Dallas News reported yesterday ("Texas lawmakers sit on red-light revenue dedicated to trauma centers"):
The law directs a portion of fines generated by the cameras toward trauma centers. But instead of helping hospitals, the money is simply piling up in Austin.

The $46 million pot earmarked for hospitals is helping lawmakers certify a balanced budget even though much of the money in state accounts can’t be used for general expenses. It’s an accounting trick that has been used for years and defended by budget writers who say such maneuvers are necessary in lean times.

Budget writers face a choice: They either have to cut spending or reduce appropriations, said Steven Polunsky, spokesman for Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who wrote the bill that set aside red-light camera funds for trauma centers.

“In the past, the state has appropriated trauma funds,” Polunsky said. “However, the state was in a difficult budgetary situation.”

In their last session, lawmakers set a record by refusing to spend $4.1 billion raised from earmarked fees and taxes. The programs that suffer include electricity discounts for the poor and, in the case of red-light ticket revenue, trauma centers.

While Greyson was among those who lobbied for red-light cameras, critics of the law say the state’s refusal to let go of the money is another reason for repeal.

“This is just another lie we were told,” said Byron Schirmbeck of Baytown, who successfully petitioned to get the cameras removed from his city. “They sell the system to the public by saying that all this money will come back to the community — to the trauma centers. But the state is holding on to the money.”
The Lege cut its line-item appropriation for trauma centers by 23% in 2011, so the loss of red-light camera revenue pales in comparison to their overall shortfall (and likely is a subset of the larger number), but it's still notable that they hijacked a dedicated revenue stream. This is one of the valid reasons why the "no new taxes" crowd opposes tax hikes, etc., across the board. Even when the supposed justification is "dedicated" to a good cause, like trauma centers, in practice they divert the money whenever they want.

Grits queried DPS this a.m. to clarify the precise extent to which the Lege did the same thing with revenue from the Driver Responsibility surcharge, so stay tuned for a followup on these themes.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Traffic accidents declined at Houston intersections with red-light cameras after ticketing ceased

After Houston voters rejected red-light cameras in a city-wide plebiscite, the camera operator predictably claimed that red-light violations increased at the intersections where cameras remained but ticketing ceased. So it's ironic, to say the least, to learn that auto accidents at those same intersections went down 16 percent overall in the months since voters shot them down. Makes you wonder about the statistics from the camera operator, huh?

Among the explanations given was that "unusually dry weather during recent months has made driving conditions safer." That's possibly true, but what does it tell us? That the weather is a much bigger factor in accidents than red-light cameras to the point that its effects swamp those of government enforcement efforts to ticket red-light runners.

The main reason people don't run red lights isn't fear of a ticket, it's self preservation and respect for the norms of the road. Sometimes when it rains, roads are slicker and more people might unintentionally skid through an intersection, but red-light cameras won't stop that; they only prevent intentional red-light running by drivers who see the camera and make a conscious decision not to run the light. If road conditions are the key factor, in other words, red-light cameras were a waste of time to begin with. Or, if it's true the cameras were the main factor influencing driver behavior, according to this data they were doing more harm than good, likely increasing the number of rear-end accidents as has been the case in numerous other cities.

In all, this is a telling outcome, and a satisfying coda to Houston's much-ballyhooed red-light camera debate.

H/T: Off the Kuff

MORE (5/14): In a followup story, the Chron reports that accidents in Houston citywide have declined 13% over the same period. The reasons offered are the weather and the economy. Fewer people with jobs means fewer people driving to work, poor people have less money for gas, etc.. Either way, it's clear there are factors affecting driver behavior much more than strict enforcement of traffic laws.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Federal judge to Houston: Keep collecting red-light ticket money

In the wake of a plebiscite banning their use, a federal judge has ordered the City of Houston to continue issuing tickets using red-light cameras, reports Bradley Olson at the Houston Chronicle:
The contract, which covers the use of 70 devices at 50 intersections, was scheduled to run until 2014. In the event of a cancellation, ATS had 45 days to take the cameras down.

The order issued on Friday halts the removal of the cameras until the matter is resolved in federal court.
I can see requiring the City to give 45 days notice before ending contract, but would think petitioners and the voters who supported them will be pretty grumpy if the judge orders the city to continue the contract through 2014. The briefs in the federal case should be interesting reading when they're filed. Olson reports that: "The city and ATS will brief the validity of the referendum under municipal, state and national laws by next Friday, according to [Judge Lynn] Hughes' order."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Opposition to red-light cameras at Legislature and ballot box

Houston turned off its red-light cameras this week as a result of its recent plebiscite, leading the Dallas News to wonder in this story published today whether other cities may follow suit with their own elections banning the cameras. So far, the anti-red light camera faction is 3 for 3 in Texas, with College Station, Houston, and Baytown voters

Further, says the News, "Legislators in Austin, who almost passed a statewide camera ban in 2009, have pledged to take up the issue again next year." Who knows? Perhaps the wave of freshmen House members will help get that legislation over the hump.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Houston wants to continue red-light cameras after voters rejected them

Whenever red-light cameras are proposed, we're always told the goal is public safety, not revenue generation. But after Houston voters elected to remove the cameras, all the official complaints are about the resulting revenue shortfall and the city is looking for ways to keep them running over voters' objections through the end of the current contract. Reports the Houston Chronicle:
Although voters abolished Houston's red light camera system Tuesday, the 70 cameras have the green light to keep recording traffic violations for months as the city weighs a legal strategy for exiting its contract with the firm operating the cameras, city officials say.

Anti-camera activists slammed the delay Wednesday, insisting on immediately terminating the five-year contract — whatever the cost - with ATS, the Arizona firm that manages Houston's system. The May 2009 contract has a termination clause that requires the city to provide the company with a 120-day notice of cancellation, a period when the cameras will still be in full operation and civil fines issued, according to the city attorney.
Now the Mayor says elminating the cameras will require multi-million dollar cuts to the police department budget:
Mayor Annise Parker acknowledged the referendum has exacerbated ongoing challenges with the city's budget and noted HPD, which was the recipient of funds from the camera program, would be responsible for cutting its budget to make up for the immediate $10 million gap created by the vote. 

"We're going to try to do it in a way that does not impact public safety," she said, although she acknowledged that furloughs or layoffs of city employees may be necessary, a position she has maintained since passing the fiscal 2011 budget with more than $70 million of unrealized revenue and spending cuts.
A column in the Galveston News put it succinctly:
If red-light cameras are about public safety, no one has made a convincing case.

In Houston, when the election returns showed that voters had put an end to red-light cameras, the story was about money, not about public safety.
The company profiting red-light cameras spent $1.7 million to oppose the ballot initiative, a sum which dwarfed camera opponents' spending by 10-1. It didn't matter; voters still rejected the cameras, just as they did in College Station last year. Notably, other jurisdictions across the country rejected red-light cameras wherever they were challenged, this go-round in Mukilteo, Washington; Anaheim, California; and Baytown, Texas.

On Facebook, the group that successfully challenged the cameras is urging Houston drivers not to pay tickets received after the plebiscite:
If you currently have a pending RLC ticket do not pay it. They can do nothing to you, can not issue a warrant, can not report you to a credit bureau and you can still register your car. Don't let them scare you. WE WON, don't pay, nothing will happen to you, they only try to scare you out of your $$$$, just don't pay...Read Texas Transportation code 707, if you read it, you will see there is little they can do. :P
Though I'm not a lawyer, from my understanding of the statutes that's probably accurate advice. As a practical matter, the city has no means to collect fines going forward and only dubious legal authority to do so. Either way, whether they're removed now or four months from now, red-light cameras in Houston are a goner. If I had my druthers, the Legislature would follow voters' lead next year and eliminate this misbegotten cash cow across the board.

RELATED: More from Kuff, who opposed the ballot initiative and wishes the pro-camera crowd had engaged in more negative campaigning.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Criminal justice implications of Texas 2010 elections

Yesterday's election included several notable results from a Texas criminal justice perspective:

As expected, all the statewide races went Republican, including Michael Keasler handily defeating Keith Hampton to retain his seat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Hampton's percentage was notably lower than D candidates for CCA judgeships in past cycles, and contrary to my prediction lower than Bill White's totals. Attorney General Greg Abbott easily sailed to reelection.

A whopping 15% of the Texas House of Representatives turned over, all flipping to Republicans who won 22 new seats. House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds numbered among the unexpected casualties, as rural Texas essentially turned completely red, just in time for redistricting. The result led Paul Burka to declare "The Democratic party will not be a factor in Texas politics for a decade. I guess that’s not such big news. They haven’t been a factor for the past decade." That sounds about right.

What that means for criminal justice reform remains unclear, though one reader emailed to opine that "Progressive criminal justice legislation may have been set back a decade in this election.  Just sayin.'" I'm not sure I buy that. Chairman McReynolds' loss is significant, but none of the other Dems who took a hit were particularly leaders on criminal justice reform topics, and much of Texas' reform legislation in recent years has passed in the House with bipartisan majorities. Even conservatives don't want innocent people falsely convicted, and it was GOP concern over rising corrections costs that spurred prison diversion legislation in 2003 and 2007.

It remains to be seen whether 22 new House members change that dynamic: A lot depends on who is Speaker and who chairs the House Corrections Committee. But the overall problem of a bloated corrections budget in the face of a gaping budget shortfall really doesn't change much. Indeed, with so many new members (and the Governor) elected on "no new taxes" pledges, to my mind the prospects for closing prison units and significantly cutting the corrections budget probably just got brighter. If you're not going to raise taxes, cutting costs is the only remaining way to balance the budget, and the corrections budget comes nearly 100% from state general revenue.

In Dallas, DA Craig Watkins eked out a victory after trailing in the count for much of the night. Though at one time Dallas Dems indulged speculation that Watkins' campaign may have coattails, on election night he "was one of the Democratic Party's lowest performers" in Dallas, reports the Dallas News, being outpolled by county-level judicial and commissioners court candidates, where Democrats generally found more success.

Democrats lost ground in Houston, both on the commissioners court and in local judicial races, where they'd swept nearly all 2008 contests. This year it was the GOP sweeping most of the Harris judicial seats. Those races will likely be quite competitive again in 2012, one would expect.

Remarkably, both Houston and Baytown passed measures banning the use of red-light cameras, following the lead of College Station which ended their use in a plebiscite last year. That's encouraging. I hope it leads to more local initiatives to repeal them and potentially legislation at the statehouse to end this local money-grab once and for all. Clearly whenever Texas voters are asked their preference on red-light cameras, they're consistently turning them down.

Overall, my take is that national trends overwhelmed local concerns in many of these races. The old adage is that "all politics are local," but the opposite appeared true yesterday. At the national level, a few pundits have suggested that GOP victories in the face of the continuing economic crunch may amount to the dog catching the car, and with a $25 billion budget shortfall there's a lesser extent to which that's true in Texas, too. Republicans' biggest prize is solid control of the Texas Legislature during redistricting, though even gerrymandering of state House districts more difficult with so many new incumbents in swing districts to protect.

In any event, the stage is now set for the 82nd Texas Legislature, which thanks to redistricting, the budget crisis and all the rookies who'll need to learn the ropes on the fly, promises to be a particularly stressful session.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Challenging red-light cameras at the ballot box

The Dallas News reports on the "public backlash against lucrative red-light cameras," suggesting that plebiscites on the November ballot may be a predictor of the cameras' fate statewide:
Citizens in three Texas cities who are angry about the devices have forced a public vote to ban the cameras.

Last year, College Station voters narrowly passed a proposition that bans the cameras there. In November, voters in Houston and Baytown, a Houston suburb, will decide whether to keep red-light cameras in their cities.

The November outcome could set a precedent for similar revolts in North Texas municipalities.

"There's concern on the part of everybody whether or not that's a trend among cities," said Plano assistant city manager Bruce Glasscock. "I'm monitoring it very closely and talking to the people in Houston. But it's one of those things we just have to wait and see what the voters decide in Houston."
Let's hope red-light camera opponents vote early and often. I've no way to predict if Houston-area voters will follow the lead of those in College Station, but if they do I wouldn't be surprised if other cities begin seeing grassroots opposition to these ill-conceived government cash cows. 

See related Grits posts:

Friday, August 13, 2010

Red-light cameras make intersections near my home more dangerous

I've lived in central East Austin for the past 20 years, so when the City of Austin installed red-light cameras the two closest to me (and through which I frequently pass) were at MLK/I-35 and 15th/I-35. And at both those intersections, it turns out, traffic accidents increased significantly after red-light cameras were installed. Reports News-8 Austin:
Austin public safety commissioners say there have been mixed results at intersections where red light traffic cameras were installed.

At seven of those intersections, the number of accidents has dropped. But at two intersections, authorities have actually seen a significant increase in crashes.

The intersection of MLK and I-35 has seen a 33 percent jump in the last year. The intersection of 15th Street and I-35 has had a 64 percent increase in crashes in nearly two years.

Safety leaders are looking at possible causes for the increases at those intersections, but they do say both are high traffic areas near the interstate.
Thanks for nothing, Austin City Council.

Is it any surprise that the intersection with a 64% increase in crashes was also one of the City's highest revenue generators? Somebody needs to check the yellow-light times at that intersection, which clearly need to be lengthened if it's getting so many tickets AND crashes.

Cameras at intersections where the number of accidents increased should be removed yesterday. What's more, the City should compile a list of everyone who had accidents at those intersections and send them an apology letter. I don't care if they were supposedly installed "to save lives," it was evident before the cameras went in they were mainly moneymakers that were likely to cause more accidents. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and in this case lined with government surveillance cameras.

See related Grits posts:

Monday, July 19, 2010

Free Market Privacy Response to Red-Light Cameras, License Plate Readers

A commenter pointed out this commercial spray-on product that defeats red-light camera technology and likely also those pesky new License Plate Readers starting to be used around the state. See a story from Austin's KXAN-TV about the unintended spawning of this new technology and economic market by the expansion of police surveillance apparatus in public spaces.

I suppose the Legislature could try to ban the product, but they're divided even on whether red-light cameras are a good idea. Like radar detectors, the product raises the question of the legitimacy of profiting from helping people break the law without consequence. I suspect that generally, the willingness of the public to tolerate and use such products - just as with radar detectors - relates directly to the public's perception of the relative justice of the underlying statute.

The legal justification behind red-light cameras and license plate reading technologies is that individuals have no privacy rights in public because their license plate is in "plain sight" and could be read by anyone. If it works, this product empowers drivers to protect themselves from electronic surveillance but keeps the plate visible to any real-life officer or witness who might immediately need that information relating to a specific offense.

Ironically, makers of this product aren't necessarily against red-light cameras or government surveillance: They'd have no market without it! About the most you can say about this development is that the Law of Unintended Consequences remains in full effect.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Red-light camera backlash brewing

Following up on the Texas Tribune's publication of statewide red-light camera revenues, the writer Theodore Kim at the Dallas News has a pair of notable stories (thanks to the reader who notified me) on the growing public backlash against red-light cameras, highlighted most recently by a plebiscite in College Station to take them down.
A grassroots backlash against the cameras is growing, says the News:
In Texas, College Station voters last fall forced their city to take down its cameras. Houston opponents say they have enough petition signatures to put the cameras to a vote this fall. And the Texas House of Representatives last year passed a measure that would have phased out the cameras. Though it failed in the Senate, camera opponents say they plan to try again.

"There is a backlash, for sure," said state Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr., D-Corpus Christi, who co-sponsored the anti-camera push. "City budgeters are counting on these fines as a revenue stream and simply using the argument of safety as cover."
Don't know how I missed the College Station vote. The News could have added that in 2008, Lubbock discontinued use of cameras after accidents increased at intersections using them. The article also provides no update on provocative litigation (which I assume is still pending), where a judge said in December 2008 that the companies operating cameras in Texas weren't properly licensed. The Dallas News linked to the class action suits when they were filed, but I don't know where they are in the process and can't find any recent coverage.

The News also found that lobby reports filed with the state:
do not include money that the companies may have spent on lobbying efforts in cities such as College Station and Houston, which have grappled with local ballot initiatives related to red-light cameras.

Jim Ash, leader of College Station's anti-camera movement, contends that American Traffic Solutions spent a significant sum to keep red-light cameras in the city.

George Hittner, vice president and general counsel for American Traffic Solutions, said the company does not view its advocacy efforts as lobbying but as "more of an education program."
Finally, at the end of the main story, a lobbyist for red-light cameras made this interesting argument:
Jim McGrath, a consultant who works for a group tied to Houston's camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions Inc., said red-light cameras are easy targets for criticism. After all, he said, they raise the specter of Big Brother and "are something everyone can identify with."

But he added, "If these cameras were catching child molesters, we would insist on having them on every corner. ... Critics who say this is just a money grab are really saying that the city of Houston is being too efficient at enforcing the law."
Awhile back I'd posed the second-hand question, "if it were possible to construct a machine that would allow detection of every law violation and ensure 100% enforcement, should the machine be built?" Red-light cameras are just such a machine aimed at one crime (out of thousands) at a particular location. Judging from the College Station vote, the general public appears far less than certain 100% enforcement of the law is a good idea.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Austin red-light camera results minimal, overhyped

Whenever you see someone claiming dramatic decreases in accidents due to red light cameras - a result which contradicts the experience of most jurisdictions - it's always worth examining the data closely. In Austin, reports the Statesman:
cameras were phased in at nine intersections — with more than one camera at some — beginning in May 2008. They have brought in more than $100,000 in citations.

Police Lt. Brian Gruetzner , who oversees vehicular homicide and the red-light cameras, says the 30 percent decrease in wrecks " is pretty substantial for anyone."

"We really haven't seen any increases (at those intersections)," Gruetzner said, "and I see it as a very positive thing."

That sounds pretty good, huh? Too bad it's a misrepresentation.

Gruetzner says the city hasn't witnessed any increases in wrecks at red-light camera intersections, but that's false. In three of the nine intersections, according to a chart provided by the Statesman (see below), wrecks at intersections increased the year after they were installed. At the intersection of I-35 and 15th, which I pass through frequently, the number of accidents increased from six to sixteen the year after cameras went in!

So how can Officer Gruetzner say "We really haven't seen any increases (at those intersections)"? It's just not true. The Statesman published the graphs so they had the data. Why let the police spin it that way?

At three other intersections, accidents declined slightly the year after cameras went in but remained higher than they were a couple of years ago. At intersections 5, 6, and 7, wrecks declined the year after cameras were installed, but were still at a higher level than in 2006. That indicates reductions likely result from routine fluctuations, not the initiation of cameras.

In all, at six of the nine intersections accidents increased or are still higher than in the past. That's evidence of failure, not success! If this is really about safety, not revenue, cameras at all six of those intersections should be immediately removed as unnecessary.

What's more, at the intersection with the biggest drop in accidents, it seems questionable to attribute the decline to cameras. Intersection #1 on the list made up most of the 30% decline, going from 15 wrecks in 2007 to 2 wrecks in '08, the year they were installed, and 2 in '09. However, the cameras weren't installed until October '08, so they don't explain the decline in accidents during the first two-thirds of the year.

Which brings us to the point that in all instances we're talking about very small numbers with large margins of error - including at intersections that increased, decreased, or basically stayed the same. It'd be premature to draw any conclusions from this data, but concluding the cameras "worked" is not just premature, it contradicts the intersection-by-intersection details.

What a phony baloney use of data to support what's clearly little more than a money grab!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Duncanville's million dollar camera: Tribune expose' details red-light ticket revenue

I mostly quit tracking minutiae regarding red-light cameras after I left the ACLU of Texas and nobody was paying me to follow what had become a hydra-headed, locally-driven mass expansion of surveillance cameras and electronically generated tickets. Since then, the number of red-light cameras throughout the state has exploded, as has the revenue local governments derive from them.

The Texas Tribune has put together a terriffic interactive database on Texas red light cameras that constitutes what IMO is their best piece of web journalism since launching the online, nonprofit news site. I've been waiting for the Tribune's journalism to go beyond academic descriptions of the process and force itself inexorably into the public debate, which this project definitely does. (Congrats to Matt Stiles and others involved.) I'd expect local newspapers and TV stations around the state to pick up the Tribune's information and localize stories for their own audiences - as well they should. And when pols, state and local, get around to debating red-light cameras, the Tribune data will for sure be a central part of the debate. Elise Hu points out this TV news piece out of Dallas that shows how easily the story can be localized:

Go here to see their interactive package and look up red light camera sites and data from your home area.

The top revenue-generating red light camera in Texas is in Duncanville, where one camera generated tickets totaling more than $1,000,000. Statewide, thirty individual red-light cameras generated more than $500,000 in revenue each during the year analyzed by the Tribune, and there appears to be little connection between the number of citations given and the number of crashes at a particular intersection.

In Austin, the two intersections with the highest revenue totals happen to be the ones closest to my house: At the intersections of I-35 and 11th Street and I-35 and 15th. At both of these, particularly at 15th Street, the red-light cameras are IMO likely taking advantage of traffic engineering flaws that notoriously strand drivers in mid-intersection when the traffic-light changes (there's an awkward, quick merge there from IH-35 where drivers must criss-cross to get where they need to be before the light). FWIW, those intersections are also essentially gateways into central East Austin with it's disproprotionately minority population, which means that's mostly who the city is mulcting these fines from.

Which brings me to my main, personal beef with red-light cameras: Better safety outcomes may be achieved with no fines or surveillance cameras simply by lengthening yellow-light times and other traffic engineering solutions. The Lege should require longer minimum yellow-light times at intersections where red-light cameras go up. If they did, I bet you wouldn't have any million-dollar traffic cams like the one up in Duncanville. Seeing these data reinforce my belief that the main motive for installing red-light cameras is revenue-generation, not public safety.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Harris County rebuffs Houston's drive for red-light camera revenue

As a long-time critic of using red-light cameras as revenue-generation schemes, I was interested to see this story in the Houston Chronicle ("County to City: Do not pass go," Oct. 20) about a city-county dispute over using coercive methods to force payment from ticketed drivers. Reported James Pinkerton:
The city's plan to withhold vehicle registrations of motorists who have ignored $16 million worth of red-light camera citations has hit a roadblock at the county courthouse.
The county judge and three county commissioners oppose a proposed city-county scofflaw contract, with some describing it as a money-grab by the city and others concerned it could hamper collection of the county's portion of state vehicle registration fees.
“The downside is becoming a tool of the city for their incredible revenue grab,“ Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said. “It's come to look like it's more of a revenue situation than trying to change people's behavior.”
Only the county tax office, after executing a contract approved by the commissioners court, can refuse vehicle registrations based on non-payment of citations and fines, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation said Monday.
At stake is some $16 million in uncollected civil fines from motorists caught by 70 red-light cameras since the city program began in May 2006. To date, the city has issued 607,000 violations and collected $21.3 million in fines.
Interestingly, there appears to be bipartisan consensus on the Commissioners Court against the deal, with El Franco Lee, Steve Radack, Jerry Eversole and Sylvia Garcia all speaking out against it. I was particularly pleased with Garcia's comments:
Garcia said she is concerned that residents whose registrations are blocked could face penalties if they are ticketed for an expired registration.
“All it does if you tack on fees, you're going to make if more difficult to collect and right now is not the time to be beating someone to death with fines and fees,” said Garcia, former chief of Houston municipal courts.
Obviously I agree the county on this dispute. IMO the red light cameras are only really there for revenue generation, anyway, since other measures like lengthening yellow light times are much more effective at reducing accidents in intersections. So I'm glad to see them pushing back at the city's drive to maximize revenue from this source. Good for them.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Cockfighting, piracy, black helicopters and needle exchange

Here are a few more odds and ends from yesterday's Senate proceedings wrapping up the narrative on bills this blog has covered at various times throughout the session:

Cockfighting and highway piracy
Sen. John Whitmire tacked on his SB 1529 regulating asset forfeiture "waivers" to an enhancement bill on cockfighting, the Statesman's Mike Ward reports. The bill was on the major state calendar for days but never received a vote in the House before time ran out. See prior Grits coverage.

'Black helicopters' take out needle exchange
Less fortunate was Sen. Bob Deuell's needle exchange bill SB 188, which like the asset forfeiture bill was left sitting on the calendar in the House thanks to all the chubbing waiting on a vote that would never come. Sen. Troy Fraser spearheaded efforts to kill the amendment, leading Sen. Deuell, an East Texas Republican (and medical doctor) to pronounce, "I think it's time, especially for you Republicans, that if we're to remain a viable party, we need to start looking at medical facts and dealing with reality and not dealing with black helicopters and other myths that are out there by the right wing extremists."

DPS Sunset bill becomes Christmas tree
The DPS Sunset bill was approved by the Senate with a battery of amendments I've yet to examine. I did notice Sen. Florence Shapiro got her data reporting improvement plan, favorably discussed here and here, tacked onto the bill as an amendment. Sen. Tommy Williams added an interesting looking amendment that transfers "certain records and regulatory functions relating to dispensing controlled substances by prescription" from DPS to the Texas State Board of Pharmacy.

Conference committee to decide red-light cameras' fate

House amendments to the Department of Transportation Sunset bill requiring that municipalities phase out use of red-light cameras did not make it into the Senate version, leaving the issue to be decided by a conference committee. Gary Elkins out of Harris County is urging House conferees to stand firm; I couldn't agree more.