Traffic cameras could have limited use investigating serious crimes

But if changes are made to the law, search warrants must be obtained and the investigation must be specific.

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Traffic cameras have little to do with driver safety and a lot to do with boosting revenue for local governments through hefty fines for running red lights.

We’ve never embraced the concept because the basic premise — vehicle owners are considered guilty unless they can prove innocence — is troubling. Just because a vehicle goes through a red light does not mean the owner is driving the car. The picture taken captures the license plates, not necessarily drivers’ faces.

Civil rights advocates have voiced fears about the abridgement of rights, so efforts have been made to mitigate those concerns by clearly establishing a law that photos and videos from street cameras can only be used in regard to traffic offenses.

In Washington state, that law is now impeding investigations of serious crimes. Law enforcement cannot use pictures from a street camera to monitor traffic in search of suspects’ vehicles.

Prohibiting the use of photos taken in an open public place where there is no expectation of privacy is unnecessary with the right safeguards.

This does not mean we believe it’s a good idea to put cameras everywhere to monitor public behavior, but as long as the cameras are in place for ticketing those who run red lights — and that practice has been ruled acceptable by the courts — the police should be able to use it for a specific investigation.

This issue has come to a head after a 21-year-old student was killed in a random drive-by shooting in Seattle last year. Detectives had an idea to try identifying the white sedan involved by checking photos or video taken by street traffic cameras near the killing.

“You’d figure somebody who had just shot someone might not be stopping at all the red lights,” said Ian Goodhew with the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

A car matching that description was caught on video but police were not allowed to look at its license plate number. The killing is still unsolved nine months later.

This and similar cases, including the killing of a police officer in 2009, have sparked state lawmakers to propose changing the law to allow investigators to obtain such images with a search warrant. Legislation has been introduced by Reps. Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw; Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw; and Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah.

The American Civil Union of Washington is concerned this legislation will be the first of many leading to a “surveillance society.” The concern is valid. Once the door opens for using videotape, it becomes easier and easier to expand the practice.

This is why any change in this law must come with clear procedures, such as obtaining search warrants, and be aimed at very specific law enforcement uses. This approach would serve justice but ensure the police could not use cameras as part of fishing expeditions to see who might be breaking the law.

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