5/15/2012Tennessee: Federal Lawsuit Takes on Automated Justice
Class action lawsuit strikes at lack of due process in speed camera program in Bluff City, Tennessee.
A group of motorists have launched a challenge to the Bluff City, Tennessee speed camera program. The class action suit was transferred to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee earlier this month. It alleges that not only is the ticketing automated but the adjudication process is as well.
"Defendant Bluff City virtually lends its municipal authority to [American] Traffic Solutions, paying little or no other significant role in the operation of the speeding enforcement cameras other than reaping the benefit of the fines," attorney Robert L. King wrote in the original complaint. "Defendant's photo enforcement systems represent a mockery of justice and due process in the legal forum in which most Tennesseans come into contact with the state's court system."
Ticket recipients are told to mail their payments to the "Bluff City, TN, Photo Safety Program, PO Box 742503, Cincinnati OH." This Ohio office is operated by American Traffic Solutions (ATS), an Arizona corporation whose largest single shareholder is the investment bank Goldman Sachs. The suit claims that the program's true goal must be generating revenue because the appeals process leaves no room for justice.
"Citations sent out by the defendants indicated that the alleged offender who pays the ticket is admitting guilt or liability," King wrote. "This untrue statement and misrepresentation of the law in Tennessee forced alleged offenders who did accept that they were guilty into making court appearances to protest their tickets rather than admit guilt. Many of these plaintiffs were forced to miss work and travel great distances to contest tickets in Bluff City only to find no court in session."
Salem, Virginia resident Jerry R. Letterman found this out the hard way after ATS mailed him a ticket stating his car was photographed in April 2010. He later received a formal notice to appear.
"You have failed to respond in a timely manner to the automated camera notice of violation listed above issued to the vehicle registered in your name," the citation stated. "You must appear in court located at 4391 Bluff City Highway, Bluff City, TN 37618 on December 14, 2010 at 2:30pm."
When he traveled to Bluff City to fight it, the hearing was canceled without notice because no prosecutor showed up. He received no announcement of a new court date. Letterman later received a "notice of determination" purportedly from the Bluff City Court saying he had been found guilty on December 13, 2010 -- the day before the scheduled hearing that never took place. Another motorist, North Carolina resident Chester R. Holt, was allegedly convicted and fined $130 on Sunday, October 31, 2010 at 6:57am, when the court was closed.
"This was not an isolated incident in that many plaintiffs are convicted in Bluff City by electronic lottery rather than an actual hearing and judicial proceeding."
The lawsuit noted one human intervention in the operation of the program. In recorded conversations, the former Bluff City police chief called Chattanooga Police Captain Susan Blaine's boss in an attempt to convince him to force her to drop the lawsuit.