Five years have passed since the Utah Legislature decided to get rid of PhotoCop — the automatic camera that would snap pictures of speeding motorists so police could send the owner of the vehicle a ticket in the mail.

Now it can safely be said that this was the right decision but not for the reason you may think.

PhotoCop wasn't much of an invasion of privacy. A thief can't argue that a surveillance camera violates his rights, and neither should a speeder. If a law is broken and the public's safety is at risk, justice demands that the perpetrator be punished.

Speeding has become a way of life in this country. Having just returned from a nationwide 6,000-mile road trip with my son, I would be happy to testify to that in any court of law. (Note to the unidentified motorist behind me in Pittsburgh: Flashing your brights will not, like a phaser, make a slower car disintegrate.)

The problem with PhotoCop, however, was in determining whether a law truly was broken or whether the company that owns the cameras merely was falling short of its revenue projections.

That, in essence, is what a superior court judge in San Diego ruled this week as he dismissed nearly 300 citations that had been sent to unsuspecting vehicle owners.

San Diego's version of PhotoCop was set up to nab people illegally running red lights. The camera would click as the driver entered the intersection, and the vehicle's owner would find a $271 citation in the mail a few days later.

The system seemed like a fool-proof deterrent to bad driving — even better than putting a blow-up police doll in a car that sits idly by the roadside — except that it was run by a joint venture with a private company, Lockheed Martin IMS. According to the contract, Lockheed received $70 for every scofflaw its cameras caught. That, according to Judge Ronald Syn, created an incentive for the company to generate more tickets, which also happened to be an incentive to mess around with the machines.

In fact, according to a Reuters news story, the company earlier this year moved three of its sensors in San Diego and did not readjust their settings, which could have hurt the accuracy of their readings.

The profit incentive can be a powerful motivator. PhotoCop is a machine. Like the fictional Data on "Star Trek: Next Generation," it lacks human feelings. It merely does what it is told. But its makers, owners and operators do have feelings, as well as wants, desires, directors, stockholders, annual reports, Christmas bonuses and on and on. Unfortunately, a bunch of machines that hand out citations can come to seem like a flock of golden geese.

Now they have laid a rather large egg in San Diego, at least in the eyes of one judge, and that could affect the other 50 or so cities that also use such equipment. Utahns should be glad the yolk is on them, and not us.

Incidentally, in the five years since Utah lawmakers decided to restrict the use of PhotoCop to school zones and roads with speed limits under 30 mph — something no city decided was worth the trouble — drivers around the country have not been taking the proliferation of this technology lying down.

Three years ago in Alaska, authorities finally abolished a PhotoCop program and excused about 9,000 tickets after a semi-organized display of civil disobedience. According to the Associated Press, about 6,000 people in Anchorage had either ripped up their tickets or ignored them completely, and local judges refused to bring anyone to justice.

Other cities ran into fairness issues. Usually, the tickets are sent to the registered owners of the vehicle, whether or not that person actually was driving. In an attempt to solve this, some cities have required innocent car owners to reveal the names of the guilty drivers. This could lead husbands to turn in wives, or visa versa, which is the kind of thing courts usually don't allow.

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In many cases, drivers who wanted to contest their citations found themselves in court against the makers of the machines, not a police officer. They faced the task of proving the machine had made an error — something that would require expensive attorneys and months of research.

If this were just a question of catching speeders or red-light runners, the machines would be fine. In fact, this editorial page supported PhotoCop in the mid-'90s for the simple reason that people should expect to have to obey the law. But PhotoCop is more than just a simple machine. It has opened a mail bomb full of issues. At the least, it has shown that governments should be careful about signing contracts that give private companies incentives to make money off of a community's residents.

Utahns spend a lot of time criticizing their state lawmakers. This is one time they ought to be thanking them.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail:

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