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"Where is a cop when you need one?" has been a refrain of people perhaps since the dawn of law enforcement. But to have a police officer so close by, everywhere, as to make that saying irrelevant would require a municipality to hire so many police officers that it would probably go broke.

However, New York City may have found an answer to the seeming scarcity of police personnel on the streets. It’s a set of watchful eyes that never sleep, they can seemingly hide in plain sight, and their presence throughout the city is growing steadily.

This growing stealth police force is, of course, traffic cameras. Since their introduction they have become the city’s primary means of generating revenue from traffic violations: Three of every four dollars that flow into the city’s coffers from traffic violation fines originate from these cameras.

There are three ways that you might fall victim to a traffic camera. Red light cameras can catch you pushing that yellow light just a little too far and if you are in a bus lane when you are not supposed to be that can get you photographed, too.

The third and most recent variation came into effect this year: speed cameras. The city expects to install 120 of them in school zones, and looks forward to quadrupling its speeding ticket revenues as a result.

There are seemingly good arguments for this growing reliance on traffic cameras, apart from being a cash cow. Perhaps most importantly, by using cameras to enforce traffic laws, human police officers may be freed up to focus on more serious crimes. And as the saying goes, "A picture paints a thousand words." Many times, a driver "apprehended" by a traffic camera might be less inclined to fight the citation in court.

This is not to say that traffic cameras are infallible. If one day you find yourself facing a traffic ticket issued by one of these devices, and you feel that there are mitigating circumstances, you should not necessarily surrender your legal rights without a fight. An attorney may be able to help you to present your case to a judge, and -- for now, at least -- humans still have the final say when it comes to the application of traffic laws.

Source: CBS New York, "Traffic cameras generating three-quarters of NYC ticket revenue," July 16, 2014

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