Thursday, August 6, 2009

SafeSpeed Ruled Legal; Iberia Parish Considering Same Program

A district judge has ruled that Lafayette's SafeLight and SafeSpeed programs are legal and has dismissed a lawsuit arguing that they violated state law.

Judge Glennon Everett found that the Lafayette Consolidated Government ordinances regarding both programs "are not in conflict with state law, but are additional legislation assessing civil penalties which are consistent with state law," according to a news release from City-Parish Attorney Pat Ottinger.

"I find the SafeSpeed and SafeLight ordinances are constitutional in all other respects and procedural due process is satisfied, as sufficient notice is provided to a vehicle owner and that owner is afforded the right to contest the imposition of the civil penalty," Everett continued.

The ruling comes about three weeks after a hearing in the case, brought by residents Stephanie Ware and Phil Abshire. The suit argued that the programs violate constitutional rights, state law and parts of the Louisiana Highway Regulatory Act. A similar suit had been filed by the same plaintiffs in federal court, but both had opted to withdraw it after a judge recommend it be dismissed.

During that hearing, Everett raised questions about the process by which vehicle owners can contest a violation and how violation notices are tracked once they are mailed. But the judge also declined to make a ruling at that time, saying he needed more time to review the issues.

And this week, a story came out that Iberia Parish officials are considering implementing the SafeSpeed/SafeLight programs in their parish.

Iberia Parish could become the latest area in Louisiana where vans are used to take photos of speeders and civil violation notices are sent to the owners of those vehicles.

Parish council members are scheduled to discuss such a program during their Wednesday meeting. In general, municipalities contract with a private company, which uses vans manned with operators to monitor traffic. A photo is taken if the van's equipment detects a vehicle speeding, and a violation notice is sent to the owner, who then must pay a fine or contest the violation.

Councilman John Berard said he believes such a program would allow sheriff's deputies to focus on other crimes rather than concentrating so much of their efforts on traffic enforcement.

However, Sheriff Louis Ackal, who has done an excellent job in combating crime in the parish since being elected two years ago, is completely opposed to the program.

"I just feel like it circumvents the judicial process," Ackal said. "You take a misdemeanor and convert it to a civil violation. You have some issues, as far as I'm concerned. You have no idea who is sitting in the van and taking a picture.

"I don't see any need for it. They are only effective in the one area where they are. We're having to move people constantly where the problems are. All this van does ... it's a money-making machine for somebody. I'm not sold on it."

Last year,
New Iberia City Council members put discussions of red lights cameras and speed vans on hold, as many residents and Ackal spoke out against the traffic/revenue program.

Supporters of the program cite that the presence of the vans and cameras helps improve driving behavior, as well as free up police officers to fight other criminal issues.

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