Traffic cameras can be crime-busters

The News TribuneJanuary 30, 2013 

Seattle police think a red-light camera might have helped catch whoever killed 21-year-old Nicole Westbrook in a drive-by shooting last spring. They figured someone who has that much disregard for human life might also disregard traffic lights, and the camera might have captured a license plate number.

But state law prohibits access to those cameras for anything other than issuing a traffic citation, so Westbrook’s killer is still at large.

That should change. Society’s interest in identifying killers far outweighs protecting the privacy of a red-light runner’s license plate number – on a public street at that.

A bill in the state House Public Safety Committee, HB 1047, would give authorities access to license plate numbers snapped by traffic cameras. To guard against police “fishing expeditions,” they would have to obtain a search warrant within 30 days of the incident being investigated because camera footage is only kept that long. Judicial oversight provides sufficient safeguards against overreaching by law enforcement.

Even if the footage is available, it would only provide an investigatory tool. Because the driver’s face is not visible, getting the license plate number gives authorities a lead, not a positive identification. It would be up to them to pursue that lead, which is the kind of information that could be provided by anyone on the street who had witnessed the crime.

This wouldn’t be a revolutionary use of traffic camera footage. According to American Traffic Solutions, New Jersey used camera images in more than 200 cases in 2012, and Florida used them in more than 400 cases.

The bill has bipartisan support; sponsors include Democrat Chris Hurst of Enumclaw – a retired police officer – and his 31st District Republican counterpart, Cathy Dahlquist, also of Enumclaw. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg helped draft the legislation, and it’s a top priority for police and the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Although passage of HB 1047 wouldn’t affect the Westbrook case, access to camera footage could provide important clues in future crimes. The fact that images are restricted to license plate numbers and that any access to them would require a judge’s consent make this legislation a reasonable expansion in the use of traffic camera footage.

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