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Rush to Judgment

Commerce City lets a private company issue speeding tickets--and causes a pileup.

Paul Orosz was willing to pay for his crime. Like thousands of others who commute through Commerce City, the 33-year-old software engineer had been caught speeding by the city's photo-radar system. "I saw a flash," says Orosz, "and thought to myself, 'What the hell?' Then two weeks later I got a $60 citation in the mail."

After going to the police station to check out the photographic evidence, Orosz resigned himself to paying the ticket and having the points taken off his license. "But as I was talking to the 'cop' in the ticket office," says Orosz, "I started to get a little suspicious, because he was talking about the city in the third person, which struck me as being pretty strange. So I asked him if he actually worked for the city, and he said, 'No, I work for this contractor.' So I said, 'Sign me up for an arraignment. I'm not paying a biased person.'"

Automated Traffic Systems, based in Tucson, Arizona, runs photo-radar systems for Commerce City and Fort Collins, the only two cities in the state that use photo radar. In exchange for setting up and operating the Autopatrol PR-100 photo-radar device in a parked vehicle and issuing the citations via mail, the company gets half of every fine the city collects--$30 out of every $60 ticket. This, says Orosz, is a conflict of interest. He calls it "clearly an open invitation for corruption, greed and abuses of power. The more tickets they hand out, the more money they make."

Eileen Rowe, a public-relations officer for the Commerce City Police Department, thinks otherwise. "First of all," she says, "there's very little need for ATS to jimmy the books because there are so many speeders out there." From August to December 1996, she says, Commerce City collected more than $250,000 from photo-radar citations alone. "Secondly, the ATS people operating the unit can't do anything to convert the unit. Any changes that they could make would show up in the computer readouts."

Rowe says automation has removed "human error" from the system: All the ATS operator really has to do is replace the film when it runs out and move the radar vehicle according to a schedule arranged by the police department. The photo-radar system does the rest: It records the speeds of passing autos, takes pictures of offending vehicles as well as their drivers, and loads it all on a computer disk that is processed at ATS headquarters.

Adam Tuton, ATS's vice president, says he finds the conflict-of-interest accusations offensive. "It would be completely unethical for us to manipulate the system," he says. "Our number-one goal is to produce traffic-safety results."

But ATS has heard these complaints before. It encourages its client cities to advertise the locations of the photo-radar vehicles and make them noticeable to passing motorists, which Commerce City does. Officials in Anchorage, Alaska, didn't follow the advice of forewarning its citizenry. As a result, Tuton says, upset locals harassed and threatened ATS personnel to such an extent that they had to request police protection.

The fracas in Alaska defeats one of the primary goals of photo-radar proponents, which Rowe says is to free police officers from having to spend the majority of their time writing traffic tickets.

But others, including the powerful American Automobile Association, don't buy that argument. Art Kinsman, an AAA government-relations staffer in Massachusetts, says his organization has always been opposed to roadside surveillance and citation without contact with an actual police officer.

"The lack of a face-to-face meeting with a police officer results in an inability to face one's accuser," says Kinsman. "It also makes it more difficult to come up with an adequate defense should an individual choose to fight it in court. In the long run, we feel that it undermines respect for traffic laws as well as police officers."

Loveland Chief of Police Tom Wagoner says he decided against using photo radar for some of the same reasons. "It's just not our style," says Wagoner. "We want our officers to have a personal relationship with our citizens, and I think that if people started receiving tickets in the mail, it would be perceived as some sort of fundraiser.

"You can give out ten times as many tickets with photo radar, but I think that it angers as many people as it pleases. Some of our officers have gotten tickets in Fort Collins, and although they admit that they were speeding, I'm still hearing a lot of grumbling around the office."

Opponents also point out that it takes a real cop--not a computer--to pull over suspicious vehicles. "The potential thing that bothers us," says Kinsman, "is that photo radar could reduce the number of police cars on the road which could otherwise help get drunk and drugged drivers off the road. How many serious criminals are caught when they're pulled over for minor violations? What about Timothy McVeigh?"

Orosz says the photo-radar system made him feel like a criminal. "It's not like I robbed a liquor store and got caught on camera with a gun in my hand," he says. "Besides, it's a still photo--there's no action, so it's difficult, if not impossible, to prove that I wasn't speeding. But we as a society have a tendency to take anything hooked up to a computer as gospel. There are all sorts of technical glitches that can affect results. Believe me, as a software engineer, I should know."

The city attorney offered Orosz a two-point reduction if he simply paid his fine and let the matter lie. Orosz decided to fight it. "I figured the worst thing that could happen was that I'd have to pay up for the ticket and the court costs," says Orosz, who had never fought a ticket before. "The reduced points would be worth that alone. Besides, the city attorney kind of torqued me off."

Photo radar has angered some legislators as well. Senate Bill 36, pushed by Highlands Ranch senator Dick Mutzebaugh and Colorado Springs representative Ron May, proposes a ban on photo-radar systems in Colorado. A similar bill was passed in Utah, but ATS's Tuton contends that this was not because residents of West Valley City, a suburb of Salt Lake City that used an ATS system, were upset with photo radar. Tuton claims that a state legislator was caught speeding by the system and took his complaint back to the office. Photo radar in Utah is now restricted to school zones only.

Representative May argues that the sheer number of citations being issued by the system has created "a humongous overload" at the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The figures back him up: DMV officials say they normally receive an average of 2,000 traffic citations annually from Commerce City. From August to December 1996 they received about 8,000.

"Not only is this a really big problem for the DMV," says May, "but I personally have a problem with the way these independent contractors are being paid on commission." As of last week, the bill, which has been amended several times, was scheduled to be heard by the House Appropriations Committee.

Orosz decided that instead of waiting for legislators to get around to the issue, he was going to try to pull the plug himself. He says he did exhaustive library research, studying law texts, science journals and radar manuals. By the time his court date arrived, he was armed with an extensive report complete with footnotes, diagrams and references that he was confident would blow ATS away. "It was sort of a flashback to my college research-paper days," he says. "But I figured that if I was going to complain, I should put my money where my mouth was and lay the whole thing out. I guess it became sort of a pride thing, a sense of honor about who was going to win."

Unfortunately for him, he never got his day in court: The city attorney told him that the case against him had been dropped because the tuning fork used to calibrate the radar equipment had not been certified by the State of Colorado.

In fact, not one photo-radar ticket has made it to trial in Commerce City. Eileen Rowe says technicalities such as the one in Orosz's case have forced the city to throw out several cases, whether they were challenged or not.

Is Commerce City afraid of a court challenge? City Attorney Tom Merrigan insists he's as eager as Orosz to go to trial over photo radar. "The system is reliable and it works," he says. "I think that for the most part, this is a case where we've built a better mousetrap and the mice are complaining.

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