5/26/2009Alaska Senator Championed Speed Camera Program Rejected by Public
Outraged Anchorage, Alaska voters banned automated ticketing in 1997 even after the city canceled the program.
Alaska's newest US Senator was one of the earliest champions of photo enforcement. Mark Begich, a Democrat, took over the senate seat held by Ted Stevens (R) in January after narrowly defeating the scandal-plagued incumbent. Twelve years ago, Begich's photo enforcement plan lasted only for a year before being crushed by a public referendum and series of devastating court losses.
As a member of the Anchorage Assembly -- essentially the city council -- Begich was the chief sponsor of a 1993 ordinance that authorized the use of speed cameras. In December 1995, the city finalized a three-year contract with American Traffic Systems (ATS), now known as American Traffic Solutions, granting the private company the right to place a trio of white Chevy Blazer photo radar SUVs on the streets of Anchorage. Ticketing began on March 12, 1996, and by the end of the year the company had issued 22,000 tickets worth no less than $50 each. Motorists were frequently hit for driving 25 MPH in 20 MPH school zones long after children had left for the day. It did not take long for a backlash to develop.
"We've been threatened, not like 'I'm going to sic my lawyer on you,' but 'I'm going to shoot you guys,'" John Warner, the ATS program manager, told the Anchorage Daily News at the time.
In addition to insults, residents hurled water balloons at the vans. Some drivers parked or stood behind the SUVs, blocking their ability to issue tickets. When confronted about why they had parked behind the vans, the drivers claimed that they had "car trouble." One vigilante yanked the camera lens from the back of the SUV, damaging the equipment. Another lunged at a driver.
Others fought back through the legal system. On July 31, 1996, a panel of three district court magistrates considered the case of four motorists accused by the cameras. After hearing expert testimony and deliberating for two months, the panel concluded that the only evidence in the case was provided by a company that kept 70 percent of the revenue. The panel found that the ATS-paid witnesses were people who "had a great deal at stake financially and who will testify to whatever it takes to convince the court in a given case." As such, their evidence was deemed unreliable and the tickets dismissed.
As a result of the ruling, Anchorage courts refused to convict drivers who contested their citations. By November 1996, Superior Court Judge Elaine Andrews dismissed 1100 pending photo tickets because 120 days had elapsed without a hearing for drivers who had filed court challenges.
Faced with the overwhelming public and legal backlash, the Anchorage Assembly voted to stop using photo radar on the program's one-year anniversary on March 13, 1997. That concession was not enough for local activist Alex Gimarc who warned that nothing would stop city leaders from coming back and installing red light cameras and speed cameras at some point in the future. Gimarc led the effort to gather 12,000 signatures to place a referendum on the April 15, 1996 city ballot -- far more than the 6958 signatures required. A strong majority approved Proposition Three which amended the city charter to require human police officers to issue traffic citations, effectively banning photo radar as well as the overzealous meter maid company that issued parking tickets at a rate of 120,000 a year.
Anchorage leaders still did not give up hope and had appealed the lower court decision to the Alaska Court of Appeals. On October 16, 1997, the chief judge of the state's second-highest court agreed that the photo radar evidence was unreliable. After a petition for rehearing was denied, the city conceded that a state supreme court victory was unlikely and dropped all further appeals. By December 27, 1997, the city prosecutor had dismissed 3800 pending photo tickets and forgiven 6000 unpaid tickets. Those who posted bond to mount a challenge had their money refunded in full.
ATS told the Alaska Daily News that it had lost $700,000 on establishing the failed photo radar program in Anchorage. Begich went on to become mayor.
The city's experience with photo radar is not unique. Several jurisdictions have seen photo enforcement programs overturned at the ballot box. Most recently, 86 percent of voters in Sulphur, Louisiana rejected speed cameras. Last November, residents in Cincinnati, Ohio rejected red light cameras. Seventy-six percent of Steubenville, Ohio voters rejected photo radar in 2006. In the mid-1990s, speed cameras lost by a two-to-one margin in Peoria, Arizona and Batavia, Illinois. In 2003, 64 percent of voters in Arlington, Texas voted down "traffic management cameras" that opponents at the time said could be converted into ticketing cameras.