Lawsuit could help settle camera debate

Ridgeland officials have been adamantly defending their traffic camera system, now they can do so in court.

A federal case has been made of the town's new method of speed enforcement on its eight miles of Interstate 95. A lawsuit seeking class action status has been filed in federal court on behalf of drivers who live outside Jasper County and have received tickets in the mail.

It will be good to get an objective review of what Ridgeland is doing, particularly in light of a specific state statute signed into law in June whose aim was to prevent the use of cameras to enforce traffic laws on South Carolina's interstate highways.

The town of Ridgeland and iTraffic, the company with which it splits ticket revenues, aren't disinterested parties. Neither are the drivers who have been ticketed.

The questions raised in the lawsuit are good ones. They include:

  • Can a state uniform traffic ticket be used for a municipal violation? The drivers whom Ridgeland says it caught speeding 11 mph or more over the 70 mph speed limit on I-95 are notified that they have violated a municipal ordinance, but it comes in the form of a state ticket. The charge is careless operation of a vehicle, not speeding.
  • Does a municipal court have jurisdiction over a driver if the driver gets the ticket through the mail? The violation notice is mailed several days after the alleged violation, the lawsuit states.
  • Can a municipal police officer arrest an individual by way of a state traffic ticket issued outside the municipality or the county where the municipality is located?
  • Is issuing a state traffic ticket by mail to an address outside the officer's jurisdiction an unconstitutional arrest?
  • The state Attorney General's Office weighed in on the new state law in July and shed some light on the issue. Ridgeland officials have said their system is legal because the law applies to tickets based solely on photographic evidence, and a Ridgeland police officer operates and monitors radar and camera equipment inside the RV.

    The opinion concludes the law did not authorize the use of photographic or video camera evidence to assist an officer in observing and reviewing a traffic violation except in a designated emergency. It also states the law doesn't allow for a method of delivering the tickets other than to do so "in person ... within one hour of the violation."

    Some state lawmakers have vowed to close any loopholes that might have been left open in the new law during the legislative session that starts next week.

    A court's review of Ridgeland's operations will help answer the questions raised by this enforcement method and could tell us whether we can expect to see this kind of traffic enforcement elsewhere. Hardeeville's city manager says iTraffic has approached the city about putting in place a similar system on its stretch of I-95.

    In the meantime, we hope Ridgeland officials have carefully reviewed where and how they are operating the cameras after a motorist destroyed one, which had been placed in the median to monitor northbound traffic. After all, safety is their top priority.