News Story

All Quiet On The ‘Photo-Cop’ Legislative Front — For Now

Revenue-seeking municipalities and device vendors behind push to bring red-light cameras

Public and private interests have in the past advocated for legislation to allow local authorities to enforce traffic laws through photographs and an automatic process. So far this legislative session, however, no lawmaker has introduced a bill to allow the practice. As a result, there has been no lively debate in the Legislature — unlike in years past — between advocates of “photo-cop” ticket enforcement and those who have cited concerns about fairness and civil liberties and opposed it. State law almost entirely prohibits local governments from using photo-cop traffic enforcement.

In 2007, Attorney General Mike Cox issued an opinion that invalidated a legal method that cities had thought would let them get around the state ban on using red-light cameras. Like all opinions of an attorney general, that opinion has the force of law, but it can be reversed by a court ruling. It can also be reversed if the state enacts a new law that allows camera enforcement — and legislators have made several runs at enacting such a law, going back to 2006.

The pressure to do so comes from two sources: vendors in the business of selling and operating photo-cop enforcement systems under contract to municipalities, and municipal officials with an eye on the revenue traffic tickets can provide.

One lawmaker notably flip-flopped on the issue in 2013. The previous year, Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, co-sponsored a bill to ban any kind of photo-cop traffic enforcement. But in 2013, he sponsored a bill to let local governments issue fine-only, no-points tickets with it.

Several lawmakers have, since then, unsuccessfully tried to move bills allowing the practice for limited purposes. A 2014 bill introduced by Sen. Virgil Smith, D-Detroit, would have allowed photo image citations within 2,500 feet of a school, college or university. An area of that size would likely have encompassed large portions of many municipalities.

A bill introduced in 2014 would have allowed local governments to use cameras on school buses to enforce laws against passing a stopped school bus. It called for dividing the money from the resulting fines between the municipality, the local library, and the local school district. Similar bills were introduced in 2015 and 2017.

One bill in 2016 would have applied to Detroit only. It called for giving any money collected to the school district, which would pay a certain amount to the vendor that operated the devices. Any surplus would go toward “reimbursing law enforcement expenses and funding other community student safety programs.” The Senate passed the bill, but the House never took it up.

And in 2015, Sen. Mike Kowall, a Republican from Oakland County, introduced a photo-cop bill, but this one had nothing to do with routine traffic law enforcement. It was instead designed to catch bridge toll scofflaws as part of a proposed public-private partnership arrangement to build toll bridges. Photo enforcement devices would have triggered sanctions that included license suspensions, wage garnishments and property liens.

As these and other bills have been offered, there has been a flow of legislation moving in the opposite direction — to explicitly ban photo-cop law enforcement, including the 2012 bill co-sponsored by Schmidt.

The current Senate majority leader, Mike Shirkey, R-Jackson, has introduced several bills to ban photo-cop law enforcement. He introduced one bill as a state representative in 2014 and two more, one in 2015 and one in 2017, as a state senator. All three bills would also have made explicit in law that a Michigan driver who gets a photo-cop ticket in another state would not be eligible for any drivers license “points” in this state.