Throughout the last decade, cameras have been installed to monitor street junctures for traffic infractions. The most common violation these visual devices seek is a lack of regard for red light stops. These machines automatically capture photographs of any vehicle that breaks the rules of the intersection. The picture is used as evidence of illegal behavior. Without any personal interaction with a law enforcement officer, drivers can receive a heavy fine and court appearance. Their installation is not handled by the federal government, which means each state and city determines their own regulations.
The state of Washington first implemented red light cameras in 2005. Currently, images taken by these devices can only be used as evidence in traffic cases. Lawmakers are attempting to change this in Bremerton, Washington. As the law is written, these cameras are supposed to be allowed only to take photographs for the purposes of vehicular identification. Their emphasis is supposed to be on capturing a clear picture of the driver and license plate; however, officers in Bremerton have started utilizing the cameras for an alternative purpose, which is to bring closure to unsolved homicide investigations.
In 2011, a teenage girl named Sara Burke was fatally stabbed at the intersection of Warren Avenue and 11th Street. The case has not been solved for almost two years. After the initial incident, police officers successfully filed a warrant to receive access to the footage that was recorded by the red-light camera in the area. Law enforcement was granted permission to view two hours of material from the device in hopes of locating clues. This is in spite of the county’s rules that state imagery on the cameras should only pertain to traffic cases. No clarification has been given to the media on why police were able to view legally restricted information.
Instead of admitting any wrongdoing, the Bremerton Police Department is petitioning the state legislature to legalize red light cameras for use in criminal cases. House Bill 1047 soared through the House, which approved it with nearly eighty percent of the congressional body in favor. This could initiate a caustic debate revolving around privacy concerns. Issues regarding unnecessary surveillance have a tendency to spark public outrage, especially if the accuracy of the technology is questionable.
The photo quality of pictures taken by these devices are typically abysmal. They feature a pronounced level of graininess that can render identifying features into an incomprehensible blur. The incorporation of such unreliable machinery as a legal witness could result in an unattainable degree of certitude during trials. The believably of testimony could potentially be compromised if surveillance evidence seems subjective or inconclusive. As such, the technology needs to evolve before it is applied in a widespread manner; otherwise, wrongful incarcerations and false convictions could easily result.
Burke’s death was an extremely unfortunate tragedy. It would be a disservice to her honor to allow legislation to pass that infringes on the public’s innate principle of privacy in her name. The manufacturers of such monitoring technology have not formally approved its use by criminal investigators, because they understand the challenges of veracity that the hardware will face. Officers say that expanding the cameras for this new function will prevent further violence, but it is a slippery slope to non-stop surveillance.