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Traffic Cameras: Should They be Used to Identify Felony Offenders?

December 11, 2020, 11:58 AM HST
* Updated December 11, 12:13 PM
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Big Island drivers with an observant eye may have seen what appear to be traffic cameras installed atop several major intersections across Hawai‘i County. Those aren’t cameras. Not really.

Kailua-Kona resident Jack Spellman was driving down Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway on a November morning in 2020 when he pulled to a stop at the intersection of Kealakehe Parkway. Seconds later, he became the victim of a hit-and-run.

“I was stopped at a red light minding my own and I got rear-ended pretty hard, so hard that I hit the guy in front of me,” Spellman recalled. “Then the guy just drove away. I didn’t get his license plate number.”

Around 20 minutes later, a police officer arrived and took down Spellman’s statement.

There was one witness to the incident, though that person also failed to capture the perpetrator’s plate number. Spellman did catch the make and color of the vehicle and had some level of confidence as to the model. The accused vehicle also fled up Kealakehe Parkway, which he relayed to the officer.

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After inspecting the damage, Spellman had also noticed the last three digits of the perpetrating vehicle’s license plate were imprinted on the plastic bumper of his car as a result of the crash.

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Despite all the information provided, the reporting officer said it was unlikely the offender would be caught. Then, Spellman mentioned the cameras.

“I saw at that intersection there were two traffic cameras, and I asked the officer about them,” Spellman said. “The officer said, ‘Oh, those don’t even work.’ I asked him to elaborate but he didn’t have an answer for me.”

The answer is that the contraptions affixed to traffic lights across the Big Island may look like cameras, but functionally they are not.

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“The cameras at the traffic signals are either used for vehicle detection or to monitor the signal operations,” said Aaron Takaba, head of the Hawai‘i County Department of Public Works (DPW). “They do not record nor are they used for surveillance of traffic violations. They’re purely for traffic signal operations managed by DPW.”

The Hawai‘i State Department of Transportation does not operate any traffic cameras on the Big Island either, according to Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who represents Hawai‘i County’s 4th District and serves as Chairwoman of the Hawai‘i State Senate’s Transportation Committee.

Hawai`i State Senator Lorraine Inouye. Senate Communications photo.

Inouye recently passed legislation, which was adopted as Article 30, by which a pilot traffic camera program is to be developed for portions of O‘ahu.

“The legislation allowed this pilot program only for the City and County of Honolulu in (HPD) Districts 1, 5, 6, and 7,” Inouye wrote in an email to Big Island Now. “The pilot project shall operate for a minimum of two years, starting from the time the cameras become operational and summons or citations are first issued.”

The Act went into effect after July 2020. Honolulu County is scheduled to bring its pilot program proposal before the State Legislature prior to the start of next session on Jan. 20, 2021.

Inouye said she introduced the bill because both Hawai‘i Island and O‘ahu reported “many fatalities” at intersections, both with traffic lights and without, over the previous five years. Several high profile crashes gripped the Big Island community in late 2019, including one that led to the death of a mother of four, Cassandra Lynn Ellis. November of that year was one of the deadliest months for Big Island motorists on record, with seven fatalities tied to vehicle crashes.

A former law dealing with traffic camera enforcement — ACT 234, Session Laws of Hawai‘i 1998 — was implemented in 2002. However, it quickly faced backlash.

“The majority of the complaints resulted from the methods by which the program was implemented,” Inouye said. “The public perceived the program was operated to maximize revenue for the vendor (rather) than to improve traffic safety. It also was a program using van cameras, (upon which) the cameras were mounted.”

According to a New York Times report from June 2019, at least eight US states have written legislation banning traffic camera enforcement in recent years, including Texas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Another approximately 20 states have no traffic enforcement systems installed to monitor public thoroughfares.

Traffic signal as seen approaching the Ane Keohokālole Highway intersection from Kealakehe Parkway to the north. Photo courtesy of DPW.

The first traffic light camera was installed in New York City in 1992, and the concept has expanded to more than 400 communities nationwide, the Times report said. However, since 2012, more red-light programs have been decommissioned than commissioned.

Arguments have been made against traffic light cameras, namely the potential violation of the 6th Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees the right for a criminal defendant to be confronted with those bearing witness to his or her alleged crime(s). Traffic cameras are not human beings, and thus this right can not be traditionally guaranteed.

The efficacy of cameras and their abilities to discern between someone taking a yellow light versus a red light, vehicles that are turning rather than going straight, or vehicles slightly over the intersection line have also been called into question.

Citations via traffic cameras are also written to the vehicle’s owner, who is not necessarily the driver, which has produced its own legal conundrums.

However, the abilities of a traffic camera render it capable of capturing the license plate numbers of vehicles seen committing crimes within the camera’s view — such as the hit-and-run Spellman endured at the intersection of Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway and Kealakehe Parkway. A traffic camera could also theoretically be used to capture images of vehicles that have been identified as leaving the scene of crimes committed at other locations, offering law enforcement insight as to which direction alleged criminals may have fled.

“The unconstitutional argument is fine for original issuance of a traffic violation,” Spellman said. “But I think they should be used for the situation I’m in, where I’m a victim of a felony hit-and-run. I don’t see how anyone would argue against that, except for criminals.”

Based on the rules surrounding Honolulu County’s upcoming traffic camera pilot program, it doesn’t appear traffic cameras will be used for purposes like identifying those who commit serious, traffic-related crimes within their views.

However, Inouye said it is possible for cameras with such capabilities to be installed should Hawai‘i ever adopt a statewide traffic camera program, adding it’s a possibility she plans to explore during the upcoming legislative session.

In the meantime, Spellman is pessimistic that the perpetrator of his hit-and-run will ever be brought to justice.

“I’m not holding my breath,” he said.

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