Red light special

Minneapolis resident challenges photo cop in the courts


On August 11th Daniel Kuhlman allegedly ran a red light at the intersection of West Broadway and North Lyndale avenues in Minneapolis. The 29-year-old computer consultant and property manager's car was captured on film by one of 16 cameras installed at high density intersections throughout the city.

Several days later he received a $142 ticket in the mail. The only problem? According to Kuhlman, he wasn't driving the car. "I just thought, Sheesh this is wrong," he recalls. "I wasn't driving the vehicle and yet I'm getting a ticket for it."

Kuhlman is one of roughly 22,000 people who have been ticketed through the photo cop program since it was implemented in July. By some measures it has been a spectacular success. With the city receiving $53.60 from each citation, it's provided a significant new source of revenue for the cash strapped municipality. What's more, according to Lt. Greg Reinhardt, who oversees the program, accidents are down 53 percent at the 12 intersections now watched by photo cop.

But as Kuhlman's case shows, photo cop is not without its flaws. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, Kuhlman is now challenging the legitimacy of the Minneapolis ordinance that created the program. Kuhlman argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the municipal ordinance is in conflict with state law and that it violates the constitutional rights of residents.

The chief problem with the ordinance, according to Howard Bass, the attorney handling Kuhlman's case, is that vehicles owners are ticketed even if they were not driving the car at the time of the violation. This contradicts state law, under which the person driving the vehicle--regardless of ownership--is penalized. "The ordinance shifts liablity for red light violations from drivers to owners," says Bass. "That's the conflict."

In addition, Bass argues that the municipal ordinance violates the due process rights of residents as guaranteed under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Similar arguments challenging photo cop programs have been rejected by the courts in other parts of the country. But Bass says that the Minneapolis law overreaches by potentially imposing criminal sanctions (such as revocation of license) against traffic scofflaws. "I believe that what distinguishes this from all the other cases across the country involving these automatic traffic enforcement systems is that in Minnesota there are criminal ramifications," says Bass.

The cases is slated for trial next Wednesday. It is likely to be postponed, however, so that the judge can consider the merits of Kuhlman's motion to dismiss the charge.

"I'd hate to see the city of Minneapolis lose out on money they've invested in the equipment," says Kuhlman, "but what they're doing is just unfair."

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