Red light camera tickets and bully tactics

A recent KTRK-TV news story investigates the Houston Police Department’s red light camera program and the delinquency letters which recently went out to scofflaws who have not paid the fine. These letters threaten a hold on the vehicle’s registration if the fine is not paid, and that is where the issue lies.

Quoting from the Web version of the story:

“That’s just a false statement,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

Harris County commissioners have refused to let the city use its tax assessor collector’s office to withhold registration renewals for delinquent red light violators. There was a unanimous vote a few months ago. Commissioners said it was based on issues, some said it was politics. HPD’s chief financial officer doesn’t understand.

Now, I’d like to make it clear I support the obedience of most traffic laws, and that specifically includes properly timed and warranted traffic signals. On the whole, disregarding (running) a red light is dangerous, both for the violator and the cross traffic at risk of a collision. Don’t do it. (Some of you may already wonder why I say “most” and not “all” and I’ll address those in a later post.)

That said, I have a huge issue with red light cameras. It would appear to me that HPD is trying to send a message to the people who whiz through at the last tenth of a second, sometimes at 10 MPH or more over the speed limit, trying to beat the change to red. However, I have observed some intersections with a camera and noticed the vast majority of presumed violators are those poking through at the tail end of a large group of vehicles–hardly the real danger to safety when one hears or reads “red light runner.” Unless you have someone who bolts out at the first sight of a green light–not a wise idea in Houston or any other large city–these drivers rarely pose a real risk to safety and are more of an annoyance. (The case could be made the driver who gives a traffic signal the race track treatment is the bigger risk to safety.)

Someone I know got a ticket for failing to come to a complete stop before a right turn on red. Originally, these types of violations were not going to be ticketed. Apparently, someone saw the dollar signs and said “Who cares if the city doesn’t get the money and it all goes to hospitals? Let’s max it out anyway.”

We already know HPD is willing to lie and usurp the FAA’s authority over airspace when it suits their best interests. It is not surprising to me at all that HPD is also willing to bully red light camera ticket recipients with an outright lie about vehicle registration.

Local traffic ticket attorney Scott Markowitz decries the misleading warning as “at best a hollow threat, at worst is fraud.” And I’m inclined to agree. Until HPD realizes red light cameras rarely if ever catch the real risks to safety and on the whole don’t work, the best we can hope for is at least some semblance of truth in the delinquency letters.

Aerial drones, lies, censorship, and video news reports

Whatever would I do without great posts from Boing Boing like this? The YouTube video embedded therein is a news report from KPRC-TV (which Houston folks will know as Channel 2, our local NBC affiliate). Stephen Dean reports on what was supposed to be a secret test of unmanned aerial drones conducted by the Houston Police Department (HPD). I’ve embedded it below for ease of commenting, but I do recommend you check out the Boing Boing post linked above for the comments.

[Edit 2016-04-05: the original video was deleted when the YouTube account was terminated due to multiple copyright infringement incidents. I have replaced it with another link I found, still online today.]

The scary part is a quote at 2:54 into the video:

Back at the secret test site, police helicopters claimed the entire airspace was restricted. They even threatened our Local 2 Investigates pilot with action from the FAA if we didn’t leave. But we checked with the FAA several times and there never was a flight restriction. That leaves some to wonder whether the police are ready to use terrorism fears since 9/11 to push the envelope even further into our private lives.

Really, HPD? What jurisdiction are you operating under? Airspace is the FAA’s jurisdiction; local police departments cannot arbitrarily restrict airspace. If local police were allowed to restrict airspace at will we would have total chaos, and there would be little use for the FAA at all.

The KPRC-TV news team had every right to gather the information they did. It is unfortunate that the law enforcement agencies running this exhibition (particularly HPD) did not secure the proper airspace restriction from the FAA, relying instead on the “no media allowed” on the invitation and bully tactics.

I think HPD is owed a visit by the FAA for what certainly appears to be a nominal disrespect of Federal law, possibly much worse. Law enforcement agencies must operate within the law, or risk losing the respect of the citizens which they have sworn to protect and serve. Example: Ever seen a police cruiser blasting by you, well in excess of the posted limits, without lights? They’ll say it’s a “code 2” or something similar, an emergency that’s just enough of an emergency that speed limits can go out the window, but not for lights and siren. Now, no matter what emergency we, the common citizens have, we are subject to getting a ticket if we do that. The same goes for stop signs and red lights, or even parking tickets.

And I’m not even touching on the downright creepy surveillance allowed by this technology yet. That’s almost a whole rant in and of itself. The fact that HPD went to these lengths to hide their new toy (which quite possibly fly in the face the First Amendment of the US Constitution in addition to FAA regulations) is quite chilling, and makes me wonder what kind of a society we live in now in \2010. The report mentions speed limit enforcement as one possibility; I think I made my viewpoint clear on that above. This is the stuff of dystopian sci-fi novels, made into reality. Sorry to disappoint, but I’d prefer as much of that be kept fiction as possible.