The ACLU of Rhode Island has called upon Providence Mayor David Cicilline and the City Council to reject a proposal, floated this past week to raise revenue for the city, of installing so-called “red light cameras” at various intersections in the city. In a two-page letter to City officials, R.I. ACLU executive director Steven Brown argued that installation of the cameras “raises troubling privacy and due process concerns,” and “erodes, in subtle ways, our basic rights and turns on its head the major rationale for traffic safety laws.” Excerpts from the ACLU’s letter appear below:

“Presently, when one receives a traffic violation, a motorist is, of course, made immediately aware of the violation by the officer who provides the ticket. With red light cameras, however, it may be weeks before a person is given notification of a citation, making his or her ability to challenge it much harder. In addition, the system is based on the imperfect assumption that the driver of the car and the person to whom the car is registered are one and the same, as tickets are issued based on car registration information. In many instances, of course, this assumption is not true, but the owner of the car will nonetheless be forced to pay. At a minimum, the burden of proof falls on him or her to prove he or she was not driving at the time, an overturning of the bedrock principle regarding the presumption of innocence.

“While the invasion of privacy occasioned by this system may seem minor, any implementation of a system that leads to the widespread installation of cameras in a city cannot be ignored or minimized. As surveillance cameras of any kind become more ubiquitous, a further desensitization of privacy rights is inevitable. There is more than a little irony in having Providence gravitate towards video surveillance for any reason, coming so soon after the Providence public safety complex scandal involving the unauthorized audio surveillance of thousands of residents.

“Finally, we must note the troubling private-public connection with red light camera systems. In most instances, the private company responsible for the cameras gets a ‘kickback’ for every ticket issued. It is thus in their best interest – as well as the City’s -- to have people running red lights. This is precisely the opposite of what the City’s goal should be – ensuring better safety at dangerous intersections. Indeed, in some other municipalities where these systems were installed, litigation discovered that traffic intersections were specifically chosen where, for example, yellow lights were shorter, in order to catch more people. This is hardly an appropriate way to enforce traffic laws.”

The letter concluded by calling on city officials to direct their revenue-raising efforts “to other activities and venues.”