Beaufort News

State senator promises bill Tuesday to outlaw Ridgeland highway camera

For more than five months, state Sen. Larry Grooms could only watch as Ridgeland police used traffic cameras to ticket 3,000 to 4,000 speeders on its stretch of Interstate 95 despite a law passed in June intended to thwart the system.

This week, Grooms will fire back.

The 2011-12 legislative session likely will be less than a day old Tuesday when Grooms introduces a bill, as he's promised to do, to definitively outlaw Ridgeland's use of cameras along the interstate and make any other municipality think twice before doing the same.

"The bill will include a retroactive feature saying that for every ticket Ridgeland wrote using these cameras, it will owe the state $500," Grooms said. "If there are other municipalities thinking about introducing a similar kind of system, knowing that there is a law that will require them to pay $500 to the state for every ticket they write will certainly give them some pause."

Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges, who has defended the town's system and said it conforms with state law, declined to comment on the proposed legislation.

The town became the first municipality in South Carolina to use automated traffic cameras to enforce speeding laws when it deployed the system in August.

SECOND TIME THE CHARM?

When it is filed, Grooms' bill will be the second piece of legislation in less than a year targeting Ridgeland's traffic cameras.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, introduced an amendment in June to a transportation bill allowing speed or traffic cameras to be used only in emergencies and requiring tickets based "solely on photographic evidence" to be issued in person within an hour of the alleged violation.

The bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate, and Rutherford and Grooms both said they thought the new law's passage would stop Ridgeland.

Town officials, however, deployed the cameras in August, arguing the law applies only to the use of unmanned cameras and not their system, in which a Ridgeland police officer operates radar and camera equipment inside an RV parked near the highway.

Grooms said no such legal ambiguity existed, and he expects widespread support for his new bill.

"The legislative intent and the language of that bill was very clear," Grooms said. "Whoever is giving the town of Ridgeland its legal advice will say that any language we draft is ambiguous. We were able to draft, amend and pass that piece of legislation within a matter of two to three weeks. I don't think that feeling has changed."

Since August, town officials estimate they have written 3,000 to 4,000 tickets using the cameras, which have generated $38,582 in revenuefor the town.

More important, Ridgeland officials say, is the 57 percent reduction in drivers traveling faster than 81 mph on the section of interstate that cuts through the town since they began using the cameras.

'TAILOR MADE' FOR A LAWSUIT

The town's use of traffic cameras on I-95 has not only drawn the ire of state lawmakers, it brought a federal class-action lawsuit against the town last month.

Grooms said he was not surprised when attorney Pete Strom of Columbia filed suit Dec. 20 against the town and Police Department, alleging various aspects of the traffic-enforcement program are unconstitutional.

"This type of thing is tailor-made for some industrious trial lawyer to challenge," Grooms said. "The plaintiffs will win."

Two Florida drivers and a South Carolina motorist are plaintiffs in the suit, filed on behalf of "several thousand drivers" who have been mailed speeding tickets from the town, the complaint reads.

In particular, the suit takes exception to the town's practice of using "unauthorized mail service" to deliver tickets to drivers, many of whom live outside Ridgeland's jurisdiction. Such tickets constitute illegal arrests, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit asks that Ridgeland return all fines it has collected and that the court order the town to stop issuing the tickets using the camera system.

The town has yet to file its response to the complaint, according to federal court records.

Hodges has declined to discuss the suit, citing town policy not to comment on pending litigation.

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