A bill that would allow cities to install cameras designed to catch red light runners at intersections hit a red light of its own in a House committee.
The House Transportation Policy Committee tabled the bill Wednesday after several members raised concerns that the traffic cameras would violate civil liberties.
The House Transportation Policy Committee heard two hours of testimony on the bill. Supporters said installing traffic cameras at intersections would improve public safety. Chief author of the bill, DFL Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul, said she has found that red light cameras reduce traffic deaths.
"We rarely hear about the real victims: the people who are killed or injured by these law breakers," Hausman said. "And that is why I am bringing this forward. The statistics of injury and death are overwhelming."
The bill would allow a private company to photograph of the driver and the license plates of cars that run red lights. The private company would determine whether a violation occurred and turn the information over to police to issue a citation. St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said the system would help St. Cloud police enforce the laws in his city.
"We don't have the resources nor would we ever have the ability to have the resources to have a cop at every intersection," Kleis said. "It also wouldn't make sense on a priority basis. This allows a tool to have that ability."
St. Cloud's police chief also testified in support of the bill. But others representing law enforcement said the proposal is a bad idea. Dennis Flaherty with the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association said he believed the true motive of the cameras is for cities to make money. He said people become angry when they learn that the private company operating the cameras is paid a commission for each ticket. He said police are often the targets of that anger.
"'Photo-cop' is revenue driven," Flaherty said. "Make no mistake that this is what this bill is all about. That is the incentive behind these efforts. These programs create more ill will towards police than almost any other single effort that we may get involved with."
This isn't the first time traffic cameras have been debated at the Legislature. A few years ago a law was passed but later thrown out by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The court ruled that although the city of Minneapolis was sending tickets to vehicle owners, it could not always verify the identity of the driver at the time of the citation.
Some of the lawmakers on the committee worried about the constitutionality of the bill and whether cities could use the cameras for speeding tickets or surveillance. Others said a private company should not be storing and examining traffic data. But the biggest concern was over civil liberties. Republican Rep. Mike Beard of Shakopee said there are better ways to reduce traffic deaths.
"The balancing act that we have is at what point do we say 'We're saving lives but we're going to impinge people's civil liberties?'" Beard said. "That's the balancing act we have, and I'm here to say that there's a lot more we can do from an engineering perspective."
The committee chair, DFL Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina, said he wanted the committee to vote on the bill but later decided to table it after a lobbyist for a company selling the traffic cameras sent him a note. Erhardt later told reporters that the bill did not have the support of the committee and would likely have been defeated. He said the committee may consider the bill later but only if there is enough support to pass it.