published Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Ruling limits Red Bank red-light cameras

Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press
One of three traffic cameras at the intersection of Ashland Terrace and Dayton Boulevard in Red Bank records traffic light violations.
Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press One of three traffic cameras at the intersection of Ashland Terrace and Dayton Boulevard in Red Bank records traffic light violations.
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NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper says a new law restricting use of traffic-enforcement cameras appears at first blush to outlaw immediately the use of the devices to cite motorists failing to come to a complete stop when turning right at red lights.

The new law and Cooper's legal opinion already have shut down at least one Tennessee city's use of traffic cameras in combating abuse of right-on-red situations.

"We want to do whatever the attorney general says -- whatever way was fine with us," said Red Bank City Manager Chris Dorsey, who had asked Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, to seek the legal opinion.

Dorsey said Monday he plans to discuss the matter later today when the Red Bank City Commission meets. The city temporarily suspended issuing citations to drivers failing to stop on right turns at red lights beginning July 1 when the new law took effect. He said that was because of uncertainty about its impact.

Red Bank's new budget already takes into account the resulting loss of revenue -- an estimated $185,000. That comes out to roughly half of what had originally been projected to be $375,000 in traffic camera revenues, Dorsey said.

In his Aug. 8 legal opinion, Cooper cautioned that because his office has not been provided with a copy of any current contracts cities have with traffic-camera companies, "we cannot provide a definitive answer to the question presented given that claims that legislative enactment unconstitutionally impairs the obligation of contracts are necessarily fact-intensive."

"Nevertheless," Cooper wrote, "based on the information set forth in the opinion request, this Office finds compelling arguments exist to support the position that the passage of Chapter 425 does not unlawfully impair any contractual relationship. Such arguments include that the [law] is remedial in nature, represents a legitimate exercise of the State's police power and is reasonable in relation to its purpose."

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy, R-Shelbville, had sought the opinion along with Floyd. They asked Cooper whether the law was "defensible against a challenge that it unconstitutionally impairs the obligations of contracts."

Floyd, a critic of red light cameras, said Cooper's opinion is clear to him.

"They can't write tickets on right on red. It's the law. I think it's a good thing."

McLean Duncan, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, said while the organization continues to study Cooper's opinion, she has questions about its ability to curtail existing contracts under the Tennessee Constitution.

"You can't pass a law that supercedes contracts that are already in place," she said. "That was the whole thing, the premise that everything [agreement on bill] was done. Otherwise, there would have been a grandfather clause put in the legislation."

A grandfather clause would have excluded cities with existing contracts from the law's provisions.

About 25 to 30 cities could be affected, Duncan said.

Red Bank, which contracts with photo-enforcement vendor American Traffic Solutions, has cameras at three intersections. Two are set up to catch motorists who ignore state laws requiring them to come to a complete stop before turning right on red.

Dorsey said city officials will discuss the issue with American Traffic Solutions, which has a revenue-sharing agreement with the city under the contract. It could impact the future of the contract, he said.

  • photo
    Tennessee state representative Vince Dean. Staff Photo by Patrick Smith

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, sponsored the bill, which was aimed at standardizing municipalities' use of photo enforcement cameras.

He agreed with Floyd's assessment, noting, "that's basically what I'm reading from it."

Dean recalled an attorney for one of the traffic-camera vendors telling lawmakers they could not impair existing contracts with the legislation. The law itself bans using traffic cameras to issue tickets on "right-on-red" unless a city posts a sign banning all right turns on red.

Dean's bill was intended to end a years-long stalemate between lawmakers who wanted an outright ban on any use of cameras and cities and chiefs of police. Critics argued cameras amounted to a revenue grab. Cities and police argued the issue was safety.

Dean, a former East Ridge mayor and retired Chattanooga police lieutenant, said the law was intended to "maintain the integrity" of such programs provided cities could demonstrate they were in place for safety purposes.

For example, it requires an independent engineering study -- not a traffic-camera company's engineer -- to demonstrate the need for speed or red-light cameras. Much of it was modeled on Chattanooga's standards.

During committee hearings, Dean sometimes found himself attacked by both sides.

"To be honest with you," he said, "I'm tired of talking traffic cameras. I'm wore out on it."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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dao1980 said...

Who cares, why would anyone ever go to Red Bank anyway?

August 16, 2011 at 7:41 a.m.
Astropig said...

Good. I hope this is another small nail in the coffin of these cameras. These things serve no useful public policy purpose. They are a revenue grab,pure and simple. A lazy governments way of taxing its citizens without having the courage to vote for those taxes in the light of day.

I have no problem at all with putting more patrol cars on the street to catch and prosecute traffic offenders. Doing that is good public policy. But cameras deprive citizens of basic rights (just try to cross examine a camera in a court room) and lead to a diminution of respect for government and police.Nobody respects the police in totalitarian societies because they all believe that the cops are the enforcers for the mob that runs things.

Cops- Good. We need more eyes and ears on the streets to keep us safe. Cameras-Bad. It's "safety theatre" designed to fleece drivers.

August 16, 2011 at 8:21 a.m.
LibDem said...

I don't understand this law. Are we supposed to stop for red lights or not? It would be nice to know when I hit my brakes to avoid a driver pulling into my path that he's doing what he's supposed to do.

August 16, 2011 at 9:22 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

The issue is do we turn into a police state, or not.

August 16, 2011 at 10:04 a.m.
LibDem said...

I usually turn into streets or roads though occasionally fields.

August 16, 2011 at 10:13 a.m.
srd275 said...

Listening to the scamera side use the “we have a contract” excuse to try to STOP PHOTO ENFORCEMENT BANS is the FINAL act of desperate people.

Do you hear Drug king pins saying to the feds “you can’t ban our drugs, we have a contract”.


The state can BAN PHOTO ENFORCEMENT, contract or NOT! THIS IS DEMOCRACY, NOT ATS “Kingdom”.

Or does ATS run the state of TN now?????



Read more on ATS “activities” in WA state where they are trying to DENY DEMOCRACY!

August 16, 2011 at 10:41 a.m.
DanTrice said...

Very simple solution here. Follow the rules of the road. Don't speed, Don't run red lights, Don't turn right on red without stopping. No one ever argues the laws, just how they get caught breaking them. Fact is, you're still breaking the law. Solution to the cameras? Don't break the law. They lose funding. The cameras go away. Besides, who knows, maybe ya just might help save a kids life by paying attention a bit more too, but hey, can't ask for everything right?

August 16, 2011 at 2:27 p.m.
LibDem said...

I've driven through Red Bank at least four times a week for years and have never had a ticket. What is so difficult about this? I'm not even a rocket scientist. What happens when a real problem comes into your life?

August 16, 2011 at 3:02 p.m.
HenryTen said...

I think that any change regarding rolling right tickets must be nuanced. If the city has directed or caused the camera company to install cameras on lanes which are used exclusively for right turns (no option to drive straight-through), the company could successfully argue that an all-out ban on rolling right tickets unfairly deprives it of any revenue from the equipment it installed on said lanes. If this situation obtains in your city, I suggest that instead of an outright ban, you enact a limit on rolling right ticketing - such as a requirement that the vehicle's speed over the detection loops (called the "trigger speed" or the "threshold speed" and typically set at 10 - 18 mph) must be in excess of 20 mph, before a right-turn ticket can issue. In this way, the camera company would still get some income from the equipment it installed to monitor the dedicated right-turn lanes. And the city would not be seen to be giving a free pass to people who race around corners at ultra high speeds.

August 16, 2011 at 3:28 p.m.
easyeintn said...

So if it was determined to not be legal, when does Red Bank start reimbursing all those people who they fined for something they should not have been fined for? Sounds like about $185,000 per year they owe back to the citizens of Red Bank and Chattanooga...

August 17, 2011 at 4:41 p.m.
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