SEATTLE – Police across the nation are using footage from red light cameras to help them solve crimes, but not in Washington.
Washington state law prohibits police from using images from the cameras for anything other than traffic enforcement.
The King County prosecutor wants the Legislature to reconsider that law, in case the cameras could provide vital clues in some unsolved killings.
Washington is among the few states that bar police from using images from red-light cameras in criminal investigations, the Seattle Times reported Sunday.
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, King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Don Raz said.
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 non-traffic 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.”
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 to 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.
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.”
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. However, police found a suspect without the footage.