A Minnesota House committee hit the brakes Wednesday on legislation that would permit cities to post cameras at intersections to catch and ticket red-light runners.
A divided House Transportation Policy Committee deferred a vote as signs of trouble for the bill appeared. The panel's chairman, Democratic Rep. Ron Erhardt, later acknowledged to reporters that it was headed for defeat.
Hailed as valuable tools in traffic safety by advocates and derided as high-tech cash cows by detractors, the cameras have spread to 25 states and more than 500 cities across the country. But they have a checkered history in Minnesota.
The red-light cameras were used in Minneapolis for a couple of years before the state Supreme Court struck down the city's ordinance in 2007. The court said the city couldn't always prove who was at the wheel when it mailed out tickets.
The legislation would establish requirements that cities using the cameras link a driver to a vehicle blasting through an intersection using clear photographic evidence.
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul and the bill's sponsor, relied heavily on insurance industry studies to make her case that the cameras change driver behavior and cut down on serious crashes.
"We'd happily have a police officer on every corner, particularly every dangerous corner," she said before concluding that cash-strapped local governments can't afford to do that.
The new cameras would cost between $100,000 and $150,000 per intersection, said attorney Craig Buske, who represents Arizona-based vendor Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., which has hired a team of lobbyists in Minnesota to push for the law. The cameras are triggered with sensors in the roadway and record video and still images when a driver fails to stop for a red light. Data is typically collected by the vendor but city police are the ones who determine when a ticket gets mailed out, using facial images and license data to pinpoint the suspected offender.
That data collection was a key source of concern among committee members, who voiced worries it would tiptoe into surveillance or be used as a pretense to issue other citations unrelated to red-light offenses.
"At what point do we say we are saving lives but we are going to impinge people's civil liberties? That's the balancing act we're in today," said Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee.
Two associations for Minnesota police officers oppose the bill, saying it creates resentment against law enforcement and is a poor substitute for person-to-person interaction that normal traffic stops bring.
"Photocop is revenue-driven and make no mistake that this is what this bill is all about," said Dennis Flaherty of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
But St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson said freeing up officers from some traffic duties would let them spend their shifts chasing or deterring more serious crime.
Page 2 of 2 - "We would be remiss if we didn't avail ourselves of any tool that allowed us to become more efficient," Anderson said.
Erhardt said a decision would be made later on when to bring the bill back for more consideration.