Traffic Camera Corruption Case Illustrates Dangers of Government Overreach

Published September 9, 2014

Want to understand the full significance of Chicago’s red-light camera program? Consider an imaginary world in which laws are enforced and prosecuted by robots and algorithms instead of flesh-and-blood people.

Unblinking cameras record your every action, distilling uncounted hours of everyday human activity to the flipping of bits and recording of strings inside nondescript banks of beige computers.

It seems both laudably objective and objectively frightening. When these opaque computer programs indicate the commission of a crime, even more computer programs indict private citizens and call for government prosecution—all without human accountability, interaction or oversight.

In this confluence of the private surveillance industry and the public legal system, there is no room for explanation, no margin allowed for presumption of innocence—but plenty of private money funneled to public officials.

This may sound like a pitch for the latest young-adult science-fiction thriller—a possible successor to the Hunger Games or Divergent series, perhaps. Yet, it’s the actual state of affairs here in Chicago, where federal investigators allege city officials accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal payoffs in return for steering contracts and instituting Chicago as the so-called “nation’s red-light camera capital.”

In addition to questions about the constitutionality of Chicago’s red-light camera program, the city began farming out traffic enforcement to Redflex in 2003 without prior authorization from the legislature. This may have violated the state constitutional requirement for uniform traffic laws. The allegation Chicago transportation official John Bills accepted cash bribes and perks is exhibit A in the case against red-light cameras, in Chicago and everywhere else as well.

The mingling of public and private sectors in the city’s program effectively removes the private company’s economic interest in ensuring the accuracy of its surveillance systems, because the company still profits when motorists pay the fine under force of government punishment, even if the reported offense is false.

Motorists, for their part, enter the courtroom at a disadvantage, unable to face their accuser because the latter is a computer programmed by a company with incentives to maximize the number of offenses reported.

The allegations levied against Bills and others in the city government serve as further proof of the accuracy of Cornelius Tacitus’s observation that “the more corrupt the republic, the more numerous the laws.”

Redflex and the City of Chicago’s public servants—eminently powerful in their respective fields of influence, each consisting of fallible humans—worked together to maximize their respective cash flows at the expense of the Chicago taxpayer’s pocketbook and their civil liberties. In retrospect, the Bills scandal was a predictable outcome of the 2003 ordinance authorizing the systems in the first place.

The eternal temptation of self-enrichment—unaffected by volumes of public ethics and conflict-of-interest codes—increases government corruption whenever the government increases its reach. As the case of Bills and Redflex shows, reducing the natural human temptation to cheat by cutting the size and impact of government is the only way to solve corruption.

Jesse Hathaway ([email protected]is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute in Chicago.