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Well-intentioned traffic law being abused, former delegate claims

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(The Center Square) — Thanks to a 2020 law passed by the General Assembly, over a dozen Virginia localities have installed speed cameras in school and work zones – and more are planning to.

Over 325,000 citations were issued in 2023 for violations caught by cameras in 13 localities across Virginia, from Southwest to Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads, according to records from state police.

But attorney and former delegate Tim Anderson has alleged in a lawsuit that Chesapeake and Suffolk aren’t using the cameras in ways intended by the General Assembly, which likely passed the legislation to support overburdened police departments and keep children and highway workers safe.

Chesapeake’s 12 cameras generated over 70,000 citations, with the city ending the year with $5.5 million in paid citations. Suffolk’s 10 cameras generated over 120,000 citations and finished 2023 with over $8.6 million in paid citations.

“The idea comes out, ‘Hey, the police have less police right now’ and ‘we care about kids and we care about highway workers’ and ‘this is a great way to improve safety without blowing up the budget of a locality and it will slow people down and make people safer,’” Anderson told The Center Square.

As the law requires, the cameras are in school and work zones, and motorists are only fined if they exceed the speed limit by at least 10 miles per hour. But it’s the way the citations are issued and fines collected that Anderson says is out of compliance.

The law says that “any prosecution shall be instituted and conducted in the same manner as prosecution for traffic infractions” and “civil penalties collected under this section resulting from a summons issued by a local law-enforcement officer shall be paid to the locality in which such violation occurred.”

The standard way a speeding ticket is written up in Virginia is on a uniform summons, according to Anderson.

“In Virginia, our law says that all law enforcement in Virginia, whether it’s Virginia Beach or Fairfax or Bristol, we use something called a Virginia uniform summons…. Every cop, police officer, sheriff, state cop – everybody – has to use this exact same form,” Anderson said.

A summons includes a court date and requires the recipient to pay a fine to the court or contest it within a specified time frame. Going through the court system takes time and personnel. Chesapeake and Suffolk are using a third-party vendor to issue the citations, which merely alert the driver of the violation and when and where it occurred, list ways to pay and the date by which the ticket must be paid. The citations bypass the court system entirely, which Anderson alleges allows localities to generate far more citations and much more revenue from speed camera programs.

“If you did it the way the Virginia code said, and you had to dump all those in the court and some clerk had to type all that in and they had to make sure there was court space, the courts couldn’t do it because the volume’s just too much,” Anderson said.

Instead, Chesapeake and Suffolk are doing it in ways similar to New York or the District of Columbia, according to Anderson, and profiting similarly.

The third parties also don’t identify themselves on the citations, Anderson told The Center Square. Instead, the citations appear to come directly from the locality, which Anderson argues is problematic.

“The violator gets a notice from the Chesapeake Police Department, for instance, and it says ‘You have to pay this,’ but it’s in Pennsylvania… Nowhere in there does the company identify itself. It says it’s the Chesapeake Police Department, but it’s not,” Anderson said. “The city is allowing them to impersonate them.”

Anderson ultimately wants the cities to pay back those fined because of the camera program until they’re able to run it the way he believes the law requires. He also suspects others in Virginia are doing it the same way.

Alexandria had three speed camera zones in 2023, each covered by two cameras and serving four schools. From September to December 2023, 16,628 citations were issued, generating close to $1.2 million in revenue.

Fairfax County began issuing citations through its speed camera program pilot in April 2023. From then until the end of the pilot in September, 17,551 violations were processed.

“Prepayments made directly to the vendor who processes citations totaled $690,971 in 2023,” according to Dawn Nieters, public information officer for the county.

The city of Chesapeake did not comment on the pending litigation when The Center Square reached out for information on its program. Suffolk did not respond to The Center Square in time for publication.

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