The lawyers who have been challenging traffic cameras at intersections in Jefferson Parish and New Orleans now are launching an attack on cameras affixed to school buses in Jefferson that catch violators who disregard bus-mounted stop signs. Their latest lawsuit argues that the cameras violate the Louisiana Constitution by using civil proceedings to address moving violations and giving law enforcement power to a company motivated by profit instead of impartiality.
"It's the very same constitutional issues that we raised in the red light lawsuit," said Joseph McMahon, a lawyer who says he has signed up more than 20 plaintiffs in the school bus camera case and seeks to turn it into a class action. He filed the case last month in 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna.
The Jefferson Parish School Boardapproved a program in 2007 that uses cameras inside buses as a security measure against student misbehavior and driver wrongdoing, and cameras installed on the exteriors of buses to generate tickets for drivers blowing past when children are boarding or disembarking.
The program was slow to move, however, because of installation problems and resistance from drivers who own their buses. School system officials said nine owner-operators now have the cameras, along with six buses run by a transportation company. That's a small portion of the 338 buses that traverse the parish for the public schools every day.
As currently written, the lawsuit spares the parish School Board as a defendant but instead targets an ordinance passed by the Jefferson Parish Council in 2008 allowing the creation of school bus traffic camera programs and setting fines from $295 to $500. McMahon said he could later add the School Board to the suit.
The New Orleans City Council created a similar ordinance in 2010. Education officials said last week that none of the buses operating under the Orleans Parish School Board have cameras and seven buses serving the Recovery School District are equipped with cameras but have yet to generate any tickets.
The lawsuit says the Jefferson program violates drivers' due process rights because the parish ordinance, "immediately assumes a plaintiff guilty or liable of overtaking a school bus simply because the plaintiff is the registered owner of the vehicle photographed."
The complaint says the program deprives drivers of the ability to confront prosecution witnesses against them, such as police officers, because the only witnesses are automated devices. It says the ordinance allows the parish to overstep its authority by carrying out enforcement on streets controlled by cities or the state.
Parish Attorney Deborah Foshee said she could not comment on details of the ongoing case.
The lawsuit names Redflex Traffic Systems of Phoenix as the company receiving enforcement powers that the plaintiffs deem invalid, although Redflex is not the company operating the school bus cameras. That job went to a Harahan firm called ONGO Live. A Redflex spokesman said Redflex doesn't offer a bus camera service.
McMahon said the Redflex name serves as a placeholder in the suit as he gathers more information for the case.
Redflex is the company that installed fixed cameras at intersections across Jefferson Parish. Those cameras have long sat dormant, however, after the Parish Council suspended the program amid concerns about portions of ticket proceeds going to lobbyists for the firm. Redflex then sued the parish over the camera freeze and its share of money already collected through tickets. Parish government has been holding about $20 million generated through the cameras in escrow.
That case remains pending, as do the other cases filed by McMahon against the validity of cameras as enforcement tools.
The contract between the School Board and ONGO Live directs 60 percent of the bus camera revenue to the company, 20 percent to the school system and 20 percent to the Sheriff's Office, which has deputies review the gathered footage of drivers. School officials said the district's share comes to about $20,000 a year and goes toward buying computers.
As part of his investigation, McMahon said he is seeking the number of tickets generated by school bus cameras in Jefferson Parish. School officials said they don't have immediate access to that data.
Mark Waller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3783. Follow him on Twitter at MarkWallerTP or Facebook at Mark Waller Times-Picayune.