Seattle cops can't use red-light cameras for evidence

Washington is among the few states that bar police from using images from red-light cameras in criminal investigations

Yakima Herald-Republic

SEATTLE — Could images from red-light cameras have led Seattle police to a pair of killers?

The ubiquitous cameras are mounted a short distance from the Pioneer Square intersection where Nicole Westbrook, 21, was fatally shot in April by a gunman in a passing car. Other cameras are in the Central Area, not too far from where Justin Ferrari, 43, was killed while driving with his family about a month later.

Detectives wonder if the cameras may have captured images — a fleeing car or a gunman's clothing, for example — that could have helped investigators.

But police are barred by state law from accessing and using images from the controversial cameras for anything other than traffic enforcement. Still, the knowledge that the cameras could provide vital clues in the unsolved slayings is equal parts tantalizing and frustrating for detectives.

Washington is among the few states that bar police from using images from red-light cameras in criminal investigations. The way the 2005 law is tailored, even if a homicide, abduction or any other serious crime occurs within full view of the cameras, the images cannot be used by police, said King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Don Raz.

The tight restriction was written into the law to ease concerns about violating privacy rights, said the bill's author, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.

"Everybody is always afraid of Big Brother," she said. "You always have that. People are afraid of losing their freedoms and I understand that."

In other states, footage from red-light cameras has been used to solve a variety of crimes.

In Polk County, Fla., police arrested suspected cattle rustlers last year after their pickup was photographed running a red light by a camera, according to a report in a Lakeland, Fla., newspaper.

A red-light camera in Tempe, Ariz., captured images of a 21-year- old college student being dragged to her death when a drive-by purse snatcher caught the student's hands in the purse strings. Police traced the car to its owner through the camera footage, according to published reports.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg believes it's time for the Legislature to revisit the law and allow footage to be used for nontraffic investigations.

"There has never been an expectation of privacy in public. There should not be a bar to criminal investigations looking for the movement of cars on public streets," Satterberg wrote in an email. "We will work to fix this problem for police investigators in the next legislative session."

Camera protests
The placement of red-light cameras in cities across the nation has been met by protests, lawsuits and grass-roots campaigns to ban them. In Washington, the cameras have been fought in the courts by groups that view them as indiscriminate cash cows for cities.

Some opponents believe the cameras violate privacy rights because some private vendors that supply the cameras review the footage before it is forwarded to police. Police, not the vendor, issue the tickets.

Haugen said that when she drafted the red-light legislation, she was met with fierce opposition by "archconservatives and the far left."

She said the section of the law that prevents police from using the photos in criminal investigations was drafted to appease those who feared the erosion of privacy rights. It reads: "No photograph, microphotograph, or electronic image may be used for any purpose other than enforcement of violations under this section nor retained longer than necessary to enforce this section."

While Haugen said she has never heard discussions about allowing law enforcement to access red-light footage to solve crimes, she agrees it should be allowed.

"For police purposes, there ought be a way for them to get the information and go through court (a search warrant). Maybe it's something that should be looked at this session," Haugen said.

But Doug Honig, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, disagrees. He fears that changing the law to allow use of the images for criminal investigations could lead to even more intrusive use of the photos, calling it "a classic example of mission creep."

"We, of course, have to see the details of the proposal. We're very skeptical of it," Honig said.

Limitations seen
Seattle police assistant chief Jim Pugel said he first became aware of the limitations of Washington's red-light-camera law after the Oct. 31, 2009, slaying of police Officer Timothy Brenton. The gunman who killed Brenton and wounded his partner in their patrol car opened fire from another vehicle that then sped off.

Detectives wanted to review red-light-camera footage with the hope of seeing the fleeing vehicle in Central Seattle, but learned it wasn't an option under the law, Pugel said. Nonetheless, police arrested a suspect, Christopher Monfort, about a week after the shootings.

"Cameras don't prevent crime, but they do increase the solvability factor of crimes at an incredible rate," Pugel said.

Police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said detectives would have liked to review footage from the camera at the corner of Sixth Avenue and James Street in the fatal shooting of Westbrook. Whitcomb said it's possible a car believed to be associated with the slaying ran a red light to get on Interstate 5 or head toward Capitol Hill.

On April 22, Westbrook was killed in a drive-by shooting at Second Avenue and Yesler Way as she was walking home with her boyfriend in the early morning. Police believe the woman, who had just moved to Seattle from Albuquerque, N.M., was a random target.

While there are no cameras near the site of Ferrari's slaying, East Cherry Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, police say they would like to review any footage from nearby traffic cameras taken around the time of his death in search of anything suspicious.

But even if the law is changed during the next legislative session, police will not be able to go back and look at the footage from cameras near either homicide scene. Charles Territo, spokesman for American Traffic Solutions, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based red- light-camera company that manages Seattle's cameras, said that footage is typically archived for about 30 days before it is erased.

Raz, the deputy prosecutor, began reviewing Washington's red- light-camera law as part of his work on the Westbrook case.

"In any individualized case it could be potentially crucial. It could be the thing that zeros in an investigation from hundreds of cars to one specific car," Raz said.

In investigating homicides, Seattle police assign a detective to collect video evidence, Raz said. Police will go to businesses near a scene in search of surveillance cameras in and outside the property so they can check the footage for potential leads.

Law enforcement officers have access to the private cameras and traffic-monitoring cameras run by cities and the state, sometimes requiring a search warrant.

After hearing years of complaints about red-light cameras, Pugel is aware there might be "a fear that detectives would stare at them (cameras) all day long."

"We would not be monitoring the cameras," Pugel said, adding, "We wouldn't be going on fishing expeditions."

Even if police had access to the camera footage, Territo warned that it would be limited.

His company's cameras record for 12-second intervals after being activated by a car running a red light. The cameras are focused on the license plate of the car, but they could also capture portions of an intersection and identify the type of car being driven.

"There is no question that red-light-safety cameras can serve as an additional resource for law enforcement," he said.

Copyright 2012 Yakima Herald Republic

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