Open red-light cameras to criminal investigations

We never could expect much privacy in public places -- but any hope we had of going unnoticed has all but disappeared.

Surveillance cameras abound. We're watched indoors at virtually any public venue and outside on many streets and sidewalks.

And for good reason. The cameras help curb theft by employees and others, help solve break-ins and allow store owners to monitor their shops beyond normal business hours.

We're not fans of big brother always watching us. But a lot of those using the cameras are just everyday folks, trying to keep their businesses afloat and their employees safe.

One of the greatest unintentional uses of surveillance cameras is to provide valuable clues for solving crimes that weren't associated with the properties the cameras were meant to protect.

A camera on a storefront might capture a mugging across the street. Police sometimes piece together several sources of video footage to get a better picture of the details of a crime.

The news media routinely brings images of crimes to the public's attention, often leading to the arrest of suspects who were caught on film.

So we find it baffling that images captured by red-light cameras in Washington state cannot be used by law enforcement for anything other than traffic enforcement.

That means if someone was murdered near an intersection equipped with red-light cameras, police cannot view the footage for clues to the crime.

That's just the case with a couple of unsolved homicides in Seattle. Images that would help police in holding the guilty accountable may exists but authorities are barred from using them.

Washington is one of just a few states that prohibit police from using red-light camera footage in criminal investigations.

The law was crafted that way, say proponents, to ease people's fears of having their privacy breached.

But it's likely to also leave dangerous criminals on the streets who might otherwise be charged by police.

And besides, having police review the photos for clues to serious crimes is not much more invasive than the normal use of red-light cameras.

The devices photograph the license plates of traffic offenders, and a ticket is dropped in the mail. It's usually automated, and you're never the wiser until you open your mailbox and find the citation.

While we don't -- yet -- have red-light cameras in the Tri-Cities, it likely is only a matter of time. And if the cameras caught a vehicle fleeing the scene of a crime or offered other clues, police ought to be allowed to use the images.

Opponents see a slippery slope and view any proposed change to the law as an example of "mission creep."

So what? The cameras already are in use in many big cities. If you run a red light, your data is already being captured. What's the difference if police access the footage to help solve other crimes?

They've already proven useful in solving cases from cattle rustling to murder. If there are important clues on red-light camera footage, police should be able to use it in the course of justice.

We're all for privacy rights, but this extension of privacy to the intersections of public streets is absurd -- and dangerous.