Traffic camera lawsuit faces big legal hurdles

Attorneys for the people who challenged Ridgeland's traffic camera scheme in federal court will have a tough time keeping the case going after the town dismissed the tickets of its three plaintiffs.

If the case is tossed out by U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt Jr., that will be too bad. It would have been good to see the issues raised by those suing the town argued fully in court. They include the role of a private company, iTraffic, in enforcing speeding laws on the town's seven miles of Interstate 95.

Splitting ticket revenue, thus paying the company based on the number of tickets issued, is a bad idea.

But there's still a forum for hammering out these issues that won't be as expensive for the people ticketed, the town and the company that sold the town on the idea.

A special panel, established by the legislature, is to study the use of such cameras and report back by Nov. 1.

The panel is to look at criteria for using traffic enforcement camera systems; the positives and negatives of involving a private company in enforcing traffic laws; whether there is a conflict of interest when a private company is paid a commission based on the number of traffic tickets issued; whether a statewide agency should be solely authorized to operate such a system; the accuracy of the systems; safety issues related to camera use; and constitutional issues raised by this method of enforcement.

In all, the group is to look at 20 different aspects of this type of enforcement.

Blatt didn't seem inclined to see constitutional rights at issue in the case before him, according to a transcript of an April 28 hearing. He removed three plaintiffs who had forfeited their bonds when they didn't come to court to contest their tickets, resulting in convictions. Blatt also removed two plaintiffs whose tickets had been dismissed. The remaining plaintiffs, who had been issued tickets, but whose cases had not yet been resolved, were asked to show how their constitutional rights had been violated.

Blatt's reasoning was this: Those who had forfeited the bonds had pleaded guilty; those whose tickets had been dismissed had no legal beef; those whose tickets had not been adjudicated needed to work their way through the state court system before knocking on the federal courthouse door. If they could show that their constitutional rights had been violated in that process, they might have a case.

Now, the three remaining plaintiffs' tickets (along with all the other tickets still outstanding) have been dismissed, according to court documents. The plaintiffs' tickets were dismissed June 1 by a municipal court judge. The other outstanding tickets were dismissed June 20, just three days after Gov. Nikki Haley signed into law a bill that banned use of photographic evidence to ticket people for speeding and required tickets to be hand-delivered.

Dismissing the tickets makes sense if you're trying to avoid litigation over issuing them; it doesn't make sense if you thought you were operating a legal traffic enforcement system, as Ridgeland contended, and you thought people had been ticketed appropriately for exceeding the posted speed limit.

Blatt's dismissing the case wouldn't address the costs incurred by the plaintiffs, always a risk in litigation, and it wouldn't refund the money paid by others who had been ticketed.

What a mess. Let's hope the group studying the issue is thorough and sensible in its work.