Anyone who has driven the roundabout encircling Philadelphia’s City Hall or down the Northeast Philadelphia drag strip (a.k.a. Roosevelt Boulevard) has no doubt encountered the cameras monitoring whether motorists stop at the traffic lights. Although these cameras apparently have made driving these roads safer, are the new traffic laws that were passed to regulate these cameras consistent with the traditional principles of American Law?
Although most people do not view a traffic violation as seriously as a criminal offense, said violations are a form of criminal offense. According to Pennsylvania Courts, a traffic violation is classified as a summary offense pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S.A. Section 106(c) (see Stumpf v. Nye, 2008 Pa. Super. 122 (2008), Commonwealth v. Henry, 2008 Pa. Super. 20 (2008), and Commonwealth v. Gimbara, 2003 Pa. Super. 394 (2003)). According to 18 Pa.C.S.A. Section 106(c), a summary offense is a classification of a criminal offense. Pennsylvania Courts have made it clear that even for summary offenses, the burden the Commonwealth must meet is “beyond a reasonable doubt” (see Commonwealth v. A.D.B., 752 A.2d 438 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2000 and Commonwealth v. Banellis, 452 Pa.Super. 478 (1996)). Therefore, working backward logically, as a traffic violation is a summary offense, which is a classification of a crime, and the Commonwealth’s burden of proof for a crime is beyond a reasonable doubt, it is clear that the Commonwealth has to prove its case against a defendant in Traffic Court beyond a reasonable doubt, and therein lies the rub relative to the traffic cameras mentioned above.
According to 75 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3116(a), a city of the first class, such as Philadelphia, is authorized to enforce traffic control devices through the use of an automated camera system. The cameras photograph the rear of a vehicle, capturing its make, model, and license plate, as well as the violation, as it passes through an intersection against the direction of a traffic control devise, generally a red traffic light. Pursuant to Section 3116(b) of the same title, if an automobile is photographed perpetrating a traffic violation by driving through a red light, the owner of the vehicle is presumed liable for the penalty for the violation. If a vehicle owner is presumed liable for a traffic violation penalty due to a photograph pursuant to Section 3116(a), it is up to the owner of the vehicle to prove his innocence by raising various defenses, such as alleging that he was not driving the vehicle at the time the photograph was taken. It is also notable that under Section 3116(e)(1), the statute specifically prohibits the cameras to photograph the front of a vehicle as evidence of the violation.
What happened to the Commonwealth having to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? It seems that 75 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3116, in one fell swoop, has, in effect, turned perhaps the most axiomatic of American legal principles on its head. The Commonwealth’s burden of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt, which applies to criminal matters such as violating traffic control devices, has not just been reduced to a less onerous burden, but it has been essentially reversed by placing the burden on the automobile owner to prove his innocence. The presumption of guilt against the owner of a vehicle afforded by Section 3116 overlooks doubts that are manifestly reasonable on their face such as: it was the owner’s spouse, friend, child and/or neighbor driving the car, not the owner himself, or that the car was stolen. Indeed, even the obvious solution of photographing the front of the vehicle which would, or at least could, capture an image of the face of the driver illegally traversing the intersection is inexplicably prohibited. Finally, it would seem that Section 3116 tacitly, without any fanfare at all, undermines a basic principle of traffic law which heretofore established that penalties for violating a traffic law attach to an individual rather than the vehicle itself. It seems that Section 3116, without explicitly changing the focus of traffic law, suddenly has made being caught by an approved camera a violation that attaches to the vehicle itself as opposed to the driver. While focusing on the vehicle as opposed to the driver could be an explanation for the sudden ease in the Commonwealth’s burden in these sorts of matters, nowhere in the statute is it stated that traffic violations now attach to vehicles as opposed to drivers. Therefore, one is left with the clear conclusion that, when it comes to traffic control cameras, a vehicle owner is guilty of a violation until proving himself innocent.
Surely the safer streets, which seem to have resulted from the installation of cameras, is a good thing. However, although most people view traffic violations as a minor issue, the apparent overturning of the basic American principle of “innocent until proven guilty” could potentially have significant and long range effects. Could Section 3116 be struck down by the Court? Possibly, but due to the costs involved, it is obviously unlikely that a conviction under Section 3116 would even be litigated let alone appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. However, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the Pennsylvania Legislature could use Section 3116 as a springboard to slowly erode and ease its burden of proof in even more significant criminal matters. As citizens of this venerable Commonwealth, we must be vigilant in ensuring that our rights do not continue to be eroded in the name of safety.
Originally published on December 8, 2009 in Upon Further Review and can be seen here or on my website here.