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Ridgeland's I-95 traffic cameras draw fire from state lawmakers

FILE: Ridgeland Police Officer David Swinehamer starts the computer program that runs the iTraffic system inside a recreational vehicle August 17, 2010. It was parked at the Ridgeland Police Department for demonstration purposes.
FILE: Ridgeland Police Officer David Swinehamer starts the computer program that runs the iTraffic system inside a recreational vehicle August 17, 2010. It was parked at the Ridgeland Police Department for demonstration purposes. Jonathan Dyer

Ridgeland officials continue to stand behind the town's use of traffic cameras to enforce speeding laws on Interstate 95 despite some state lawmakers questioning the legality of the town's actions.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said a bill crafted in July was designed specifically to quash the town's plans to become the first municipality in South Carolina to use automated traffic cameras to catch and ticket speeders.

The law allows speed or traffic camera to be used only in emergencies and stipulates tickets based "solely on photographic evidence" be issued in person within an hour of the alleged violation.

"The town of Ridgeland's plans are exactly why (the bill was passed)," Grooms said.

Ridgeland officials claim the law applies only to the use of unmanned cameras and not their system, in which a Ridgeland police officer mans radar and camera equipment while parked in an RV alongside the interstate. The camera is triggered only if the vehicle is traveling faster than 81 mph, snapping photographs of the offending driver and the vehicle's license plate.

The town began using the cameras earlier this month.

Grooms says Ridgeland officials are intentionally skirting the law.

"You can't use photographic evidence as a means to write a ticket, and if you have a police officer monitoring the cameras to issue citations, he is still using photographic evidence," Grooms said. "They know what they're doing is illegal. When you have the mayor of a town instructing his police officers to break the law, we have a serious problem."

Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges said town officials are not deterred by the new law and added that Grooms and the town's other critics are welcome to view the new system for themselves.

"It's very easy to criticize something that you do not understand," Hodges said. "My feeling is those who are criticizing the system are still thinking we're using unmanned cameras."

Hodges has touted the use of cameras as a way to help recoup more than $1.1 million a year he says Ridgeland spends policing and responding to car crashes on the seven miles of I-95 within its limits.

A July 9 opinion from the S.C. Attorney General's Office seems to uphold Grooms' interpretation of the recent legislation.

Responding to a query from Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, about the legality of Ridgeland's plans, Charles Richardson of the Attorney General's Office determined the law allows the cameras to be used only in times of emergency and prohibits the town from using certified mail to send citations to alleged speeders.

Grooms said the Attorney General's Office and the State Law Enforcement Division have been alerted to Ridgeland's actions, which could land the town in hot water.

"It may take a civil action (by someone caught speeding) to take this system down, and that could cost the taxpayers of Ridgeland a lot of money," Grooms said. "This system may be something the town is doing to help save money, but it could end up costing them a lot more."

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