SMILE — you’re on traffic camera!

Contributing Columnist

When the camera’s pointed at you, do not blink,
Because it may be later than you think.
You may end up looking handsome,
But you’ll pay a hefty ransom,
If you end up being sentenced to the clink.

After eight years of toil and trouble, Tallahassee last year enacted a law authorizing local governments to install cameras at traffic lights and other strategic locations.

Promoted as a safety effort, as well as a revenue raiser, more than 50 municipalities have taken advantage of the legislation and placed cameras in various spots to monitor traffic.

On Longboat Key, Police Chief Albert Hogle reviewed the state of the art equipment available and reported to the Town Commission on the feasibility of its use locally. He was directed to investigate the technology, costs and effectiveness of the equipment.

After an extensive examination of available data, he submitted a memorandum last month to the Town Commission, recommending the purchase and installation of a “license plate recognition camera system” on the key.

His report detailed the fact that the technology involved has progressed to the point where the apparatus is able to take a picture of the rear quarter of a passing vehicle, while capturing the information contained on the license plate, and then instantaneously transmit it to databases maintained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Information immediately available can then result in the apprehension of wanted criminals, the recovery of stolen vehicles and license plates, and disclosure of motor vehicle operators without driver’s licenses or with licenses suspended or revoked.

In addition, the system assists with Amber Alerts related to missing and exploited children and Silver Alerts covering missing persons, especially seniors with Alzheimer’s disease (a useful tool on an island with an aging population).

There is a possible Florida Department of Transportation grant available for the funding of cameras directed at the Longboat Pass and New Pass bridges, and Chief Hogle recommends the Town Commission authorize the initiation of application procedures.

The chief also recommends that a police vehicle be equipped with a mobile package incorporating the same equipment.

Objections are being raised by various residents concerned about an “invasion of privacy.” Letters to the editor have suggested that there is little or no crime on Longboat Key and that the proposal is a case of “overkill” and of “Big Brotherism.”

The chief has cited national statistics that report an estimated 40 million drivers’ licenses currently suspended, revoked or denied for serious traffic violations; 46 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes were driving without a valid license and 50 percent of drivers involved in fatalities were driving without a valid license because of previous DUI convictions.

Readers of the “On Patrol” section of this newspaper are aware that scarcely a week goes by without a citation issued to a Gulf of Mexico Drive motorist for lack of a proper license.

Residents and snowbirds are also aware there have been a number of domicile break-ins, especially in the summer season when so many residences are unoccupied.

Historically, there are usually increases in theft when the nation is in a recession. Joblessness and the need to feed one’s family can lead to desperate measures from persons who would otherwise be law-abiding.

After a detailed study of the system, Chief Hogle is convinced that it improves police department efficiency (without additional officers) by providing a more effective way of looking for wanted criminals, stolen vehicles and suspended license drivers.

He is currently fine-tuning the various costs, before final action by the commission.

Meantime, back in Tallahassee, State Sen. Rene Garcia, of Hialeah, has introduced a bill to repeal the use of such cameras at stoplights and require their removal, statewide, by July of next year.

The senator repeats the charge that they represent “an unwarranted invasion of privacy.”

His effort is unlikely to succeed. Courts have ruled that there is no expectation of privacy on a public street, where anyone can take a picture.

Furthermore, as proposed for Longboat Key, it is only the rear quadrant of the motor vehicle, containing the license plate, which is photographed. Neither the driver nor any passengers are depicted.

If the driver happens to be a philandering husband on a tryst with the red-headed beauty from the secretarial pool, there is no way for a wronged wife to react (unless, of course, the arrival of a citation in the mail raises the question of what he was doing on Longboat Key, when he said he was at a board of directors meeting in Tampa).

Chief Hogle’s final report will come before the commissioners within the next 60 days. Their decision should be based on cold fact — not on irrational fears of governmental privacy intrusions.

Richard Hershatter is a retired Connecticut lawyer and novelist who writes an occasional column of interest to Floridians. He can be reached at hershatter@lbknews.com.

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