New bill signals clearly what lawmakers want

If anyone had any doubts about what lawmakers intended to accomplish last year with a law against the use of cameras to enforce traffic laws, the latest bill on the subject should sweep them away.

The bill Sen. Larry Grooms, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, introduced last week would close off every avenue traveled by the town of Ridgeland and iTraffic, the private company footing the bill for the camera system while splitting with the town its share of the revenue the tickets generate.

Not only that, the measure calls for any fines paid to be returned and the town to pay $500 for every ticket issued using traffic cameras. That could cost Ridgeland more than $2 million, about half its annual operating budget.

If that happens, perhaps Ridgeland should let iTraffic pick up that tab, too, or at least split the cost.

The new bill bans citations based "in whole or in part upon photographic evidence ... whether the camera or other electronic device capturing the photographic evidence was attended or unattended at the time."

It requires officers to stop speeders and hand citations directly to the drivers. It prohibits using the mail or other services to deliver tickets. It addresses the town's use of a municipal ordinance to levy a fine, and its use of the state's uniform traffic ticket to do so.

The law passed last year prohibited using traffic cameras except in emergencies, and it required that tickets based "solely on photographic evidence" be issued in person within an hour of the alleged violation. The final version of the bill passed 38-0 in the Senate and 106-0 in the House.

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 a roadside RV. They say they target drivers going more than 10 mph over the 70 mph speed limit.

Town officials say they spend about $1.1 million a year policing and responding to crashes on the seven or eight miles of Interstate 95 that run through the town. They claim the camera system has made that stretch of interstate safer.

But the law is the law, and if the law says they can't use cameras except in an authorized emergency, they must obey it as much as any speeding driver.

Grooms warned in August that the camera system could end up costing Ridgeland, especially if it had to defend its actions in court.

"This system may be something the town is doing to help save money, but it could end up costing them a lot more," he said.

A lawsuit seeking class action status in federal court has been filed on behalf of drivers who live outside Jasper County and have received tickets in the mail.

Prudence suggests the town should stop issuing tickets using this system until it sees what the legislature does with this bill. If it becomes law with the punitive provisions, continuing only adds to the amount the town must pay.

Ridgeland and iTraffic officials might be gambling that the bill will become law without those provisions or that it won't pass at all. But we wouldn't bet on that.