COLUMBIA -- State lawmakers said Wednesday they think Ridgeland has broken state law by using automated cameras to issue more than 8,000 tickets to speeders on Interstate 95 since August.
A state Senate subcommittee gave its approval to a bill to ban the cameras, technology that town officials say has cut down on highway deaths and reduced the risk to police officers. But senators argued the cameras could violate the rights of drivers.
The hearing was at times tense, with lawmakers raising their voices in disagreement as Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges defended his town's use of the cameras.
"You are operating in defiance of the law," said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, referring to an existing state law that prohibits tickets based only on photographic evidence.
But Hodges said a police officer inside a vehicle by the interstate is monitoring traffic even as the cameras fire away, adding the cameras only provide additional evidence.
The Senate bill, which Grooms has authored, would require police to give tickets directly to motorists within an hour of an alleged violation. That would prevent mailing tickets to offenders, as Ridgeland now does. Grooms' proposal, which must pass the full Senate and House before it can become law, also would prohibit issuing tickets on the basis of photographic evidence.
Hodges said the cameras are a cost-effective way to police I-95.
Since August, he said, more than 8,000 tickets have been issued or are in processing. The most common fine is $133, he said. Of that money, the state gets $84 for every ticket, while the town and the private company that issues the tickets, iTraffic, receive $24.50 each. Ridgeland has netted about $100,000 from the tickets, Hodges said, adding 80 percent to 90 percent of the tickets issued went to out-of-state residents.
In a related action, iTraffic filed a motion Wednesday to dismiss a pending class-action lawsuit challenging the use of the cameras. The company said the suit is moot because the three plaintiffs who brought the suit have paid their fines, forfeiting their right to sue.
Hodges said the cameras have reduced highway deaths.
Ridgeland has had no I-95 deaths -- or even hospitalizations -- since the cameras were introduced, despite millions of vehicles' passing through the area, he said. Signs notify drivers about the cameras and the roadside RV that houses them is clearly in view.
Hodges said the cameras are programmed to issue a ticket only if a driver is traveling at least 81 miles per hour in the 70 mph zone.
"We have been unfairly labeled as a speed trap," Hodges told lawmakers. "We are not a speed trap; we are a law enforcement success story.
Lawmakers argued the cameras violate drivers' due process rights.
Those ticketed may not have a chance to gather evidence -- GPS data showing their speed, for instance -- to defend themselves if they do not learn of the ticket until it arrives in the mail. Senators also said tickets are issued only if a speeding vehicle is registered to one owner. That exempts commercial, state and fleet vehicles from enforcement.
"Whatever it takes to stop this behavior, sign me up," said state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington. "I don't think it's something we should do in South Carolina."
State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, has introduced a bill to allow the cameras.
"I would much rather see a traffic camera than a body bag in Ridgeland. I don't want to stop them before we fully vet the system," she said.