Rewarding illegal behavior?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008 | 7:23 p.m. CDT; updated 2:44 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

This column has been corrected to restore two missing paragraphs that were mistakenly left out of the initial publication.

Pardon me if I am missing an integral part of the puzzle, but I fail to see the relevance of the controversy over the use of red light cameras in our fair city to aid in the capture of those who opt to ignore those signals. I can understand those who may question the cost-effectiveness or even the efficacy of such a program; however, to question its legality relative to the Constitution is more than somewhat mind-numbing.

While I seldom agree with Mayor Darwin Hindman on most issues dear to his heart, I can sympathize with his impatience over the seemingly unending delays in the installation and operation of a system designed to discourage scofflaws whose activities are inherently hazardous to the public. The most inane issue is the city’s misplaced position that the photographed owner/operator of the vehicle must be positively identified as the actual offender.

The lawyerly warning that presuming the owner of the automobile to be the actual operator just might be held unconstitutional appears to be but an extension of ambulance chasing at its worst.

Where is it written in either the Missouri or U. S. constitutions that one enjoys an inalienable right to ignore traffic lights? And, insofar as the vehicle’s operator is concerned — unless the car or truck is stolen, is it not implicit to assume that its owner is responsible for that vehicle and, therefore, obligated to identify the driver to whom he granted authorization to operate said vehicle?

This is but another assault on the seemingly outdated notion that people be held personally responsible for their own actions and also extending to cover the responsibility for the sphere or extent over which he or she is obligated to answer for another’s conduct. The practice of engaging an attorney merely to seize an advantage covered by an unreasonable loophole in the law is a rather unsavory activity — one that should be quickly recognized by judges and just as rapidly quashed. One’s “individual right” to ignore traffic restraints pales when balanced against the injury or death obtaining therefrom.

Consequently, the registered owner of a vehicle must (except under the most unusual of circumstances) be held liable for the identification of a driver who commits a punishable offense, regardless of whether that violation was observed by an officer of the law or by a lawfully installed camera or other recording device. The registered owner is responsible to ensure that those in operation of any vehicle are properly licensed and covered by his insurance; accordingly, why would that owner be protected from incriminating the driver whomsoever he/she may be?

I do not presume to question the Constitution’s provisions “innocent until proven guilty;” nevertheless, there comes a time when prudent observation of public safety measures must trump the wiles of the legal profession. Anyone who has driven in Columbia for any period of time must admit that the running of red lights is rapidly approaching epidemic proportions. The number of instances in which I have been spared a horrible fate by carefully looking both ways after the light turns green is shared by most of us. Several of our intersections can be described as disasters waiting to occur.

Responsibility begins at home and extends to operation of our automobiles. Is it not time to come to grips with reality and give the mayor, the City Council and the law enforcement community the tools to stop the red light scofflaws? The mere fact that the cameras are present will act as a deterrent to most — after all, the life you save may be your own, or even that of your attorney.

J. Karl Miller of Columbia retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He can be reached via e-mail at

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