For-profit law enforcement continues to raise questions

The fundamental problem with Ridgeland's use of traffic cameras to catch speeders on Interstate 95 is the involvement of a for-profit company in enforcing the law.

The bottom-line incentive is to write tickets to increase profits.

The latest allegations in a federal lawsuit, citing email messages among the company's officials, make us even more uneasy about this arrangement.

The emails indicate that the for-profit company is not only paying for two officers, administrative personnel and equipment, but also controlling officers' work hours. In one email, an iTraffic official tells a police officer not to go to work at the camera unit because "our violation volumes do not make it economically viable to deploy today." The messages also refer to targets for the number of tickets issued in a day.

ITraffic receives 50 percent of the money that comes to the town from the fines. The lawsuit states that the company also has a collection agreement that gives it the right to seek payment from people who fail to post bond or fail to show up for court. The company gets 66 percent of that money.

The lawsuit also makes another troubling allegation. The police officers aren't matching the photo of the drivers with vehicle records; iTraffic determines whether there is a match between the driver accused of speeding 11 mph or more over the speed limit and the owner of record for the vehicle. (Town officials have said the two have to match before a ticket is issued.) The photographs of the vehicle tag and the driver are sent to iTraffic for that determination. No officer or Police Department employee reviews that work.

In addition, the lawsuit claims that when a ticket is issued to someone who wasn't driving the vehicle, that person is told to prove that he or she wasn't the driver and to provide evidence of who was driving. According to the town's website, they can mail to the town "enlarged clear copies" of their own driver's license and the license of the person who was driving the vehicle.

That certainly isn't how law enforcement is meant to work. You're not supposed to have to prove your innocence; the prosecution is supposed to prove you're guilty.

Of course, the town also states on its website that you can pay the fine by mail or appear in court in answer to the question, "What if I am not the driver?"

The state House of Representatives should pass a Senate bill that bans use of the cameras and includes an amendment from state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort calling for a study committee to address the ethical, legal and policy issues created by automated traffic enforcement.

The more we learn about how it's being done in Ridgeland, the more pertinent those questions become. Until they're answered and addressed in legislation, use of the cameras on I-95 should stop.