Rule of law usurped by robot cams

Traffic approaches the speed enforcement traffic cameras on I-380 Northbound near the J Avenue exit in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 25, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic approaches the speed enforcement traffic cameras on I-380 Northbound near the J Avenue exit in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 25, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

It’s like a bad rerun that just won’t stop playing.

Iowans have seen repeated legal and legislative battles over traffic cameras in the past few years. The latest was argued this week at the Iowa Supreme Court, between the City of Cedar Rapids and a 65-year-old motorist who says she was illegally cited for a crime she didn’t commit.

Thousands of Iowans have fallen victim to automated traffic enforcement, but Maria Leaf of Cedar Rapids has an especially sympathetic case, with her spotless 50-year driving record.

Lawyers say the city flouted state rules by putting at least one camera on Interstate-380 in an illegal spot and failing to keep their devices properly calibrated.

However, the latest case could have much broader implications for the use of technology in law enforcement. The Iowa Supreme Court may now have an opportunity to crack down on the unholy alliance between local governments and for-profit companies getting rich off surveilling fellow Americans.

In documents filed with the court, Leaf claims she specifically remembers driving under the speed limit that day, since she had seen ice on the road. She remembers getting passed on both sides, driving between 50 and 55 miles per hour, which was confirmed during trial by her passenger.

Before state authorities started restricting use of speed cameras, Cedar Rapids was running an extremely profitable scheme, issuing more than 100,000 citations each year in 2014 and 2015.

Most reasonable people can clearly see speed cameras are a ploy to extract revenue from private citizens.

Meanwhile, they unfairly exempted certain commercial and government drivers, since license plates on semi-trucks and some government vehicles are not included in the speed cams’ database.

Still, it gets worse.

Violation notices with a City of Cedar Rapids logo were reportedly sent out by Gatso Inc., the for-profit corporation operating the cameras. Leaf’s lawyers claim those devices have never been calibrated by city authorities, yet the system’s readings are used to issue citations.

Drivers who believe they’ve been wrongly cited face an imaginary appeal process outside the real legal system. The case is decided unilaterally by a so-called “administrative hearing officer” appointed by police, rather than a judge or some other publicly accountable authority.

When Leaf tried to appeal her ticket, she said she was told to just pay the fine anyway, because fighting the decision could cost her hundreds of dollars.

Nevertheless, she persisted. Now the court has heard her case and could soon make a ruling with far-reaching impacts for other cities.

Cedar Rapids’ style of automated enforcement makes the city look more like a mob than a legitimate government.

Throughout legal history, crimes have been alleged by humans and charged by governments — not alleged by robots and charged by private corporations. Gatso Inc.’s mission is to make money, not to uphold the Constitution or promote highway safety.

Technology is undoubtedly changing law enforcement, but we can’t allow it to usurp the rule of law.

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