Enough with the speed traps

Plastic 'police' officer deters speeders
Plastic 'police' officer deters speeders

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    Plastic 'police' officer deters speeders

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Plastic 'police' officer deters speeders 01:30

Story highlights

  • Law enforcement groups have complained about Waze mobile app
  • Ruben Navarrette: Too often speed traps are about money, not safety

Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

San Diego (CNN)As you're driving along the highway, wouldn't you like to know if there's a police car up ahead so you can slow down and avoid getting a ticket? You'd also probably like to know if there's a speed trap around the next corner, so you don't wind up spending your weekend at traffic school.

Well, there's an app for that.
    Police chiefs, sheriffs and law enforcement groups wish there wasn't. They say they want to protect the lives of police officers, but what if they're just trying to protect the revenue that flows into government coffers due to speeding tickets?
    Ruben Navarrette-Profile-Image
    Waze is a new and controversial mobile app that tracks cars moving through traffic in real time and shares that information so users can get around traffic jams.
    This sounds harmless. But there is more. The app also uses a small icon of a tiny face in a police hat to warn users if police are nearby, either in speed traps or parked on the side the road. It obtains that information when other users who are driving further up the road input data into the system.
    It's ingenious -- and for law enforcement personnel, also frustrating. Police chiefs and sheriffs are not amused at this high-tech example of information-sharing. In fact, they're determined to put a stop to it.
    Law enforcement leaders claim to be concerned about officer safety. After all, lately, officers have been gunned down simply for wearing a uniform. They say they're worried about everyday citizens keeping track of the comings and goings of officers, and they insist that the app is a high-tech "police stalker." They claim that this technology -- while helpful to motorists -- turns officers into "sitting ducks" for criminals.
    The folks at Waze, for their part, insist that the app improves the safety of roadways because most users tend to drive more carefully when they think police are nearby. That sounds reasonable. It also sounds as if police doth protest too much, and that they're not telling us the whole truth as to what they're really concerned about.
    It's not as if motorists can't often times spot police cars and adjust their speed without the help of an app; often, the patrol cars are in plain view on the side of the road. Likewise, those who want to harm law enforcement officers will find a way to do so regardless of what app is or isn't on the market.
    It's easy to see why Waze -- which was purchased by Google in 2013 for $966 million -- is so popular. There is a huge appetite for this technology.
    Potential customers include anyone who hates speed traps -- and that probably covers most Americans.
    In fact, there have been cases where individuals have tried to warn motorists about an oncoming speed trap and the police have come down hard on the good Samaritans. Luckily, the courts have, in turn, come down hard on the police, citing a First Amendment right to alert others as to the presence of police.
    In February 2014, for example, a county judge in Frisco, Texas, about an hour north of Dallas, reportedly dismissed a complaint against 33-year-old Ron Martin who was arrested for holding a sign warning drivers of a speed trap. The sign read: "Police Ahead." The charge was ridiculous but creative: a misdemeanor count of violating the city's sign ordinance.
    It's not just signs that are protected speech. Signals are covered too.
    A few days before the Texas ruling, in St. Louis, a federal judge ruled that motorists "have a First Amendment right to flash their headlights to warn" fellow drivers that police are nearby or setting a speed trap. In 2012, Michael Elli flashed his headlights to warn oncoming vehicles that police were waiting with radar just up the road. A police officer pulled over Elli, citing him for "flashing lights on certain vehicles...warning of RADAR ahead." The city dropped the charge, but the American Civil Liberties Union decided to sue on Elli's behalf, charging that his First Amendment rights were violated. The judge agreed.
    Let's hear it for common sense. Speed traps are, by their very nature, a form of cheating. Law enforcement officers are bending the rules to hand out tickets. Worse, they're also an example of government-sponsored thievery. Cash-strapped cities and counties have come up with new ways of generating revenue.
    One of the first places they look are unsuspecting motorists who are in a poor position to complain because -- the authorities are likely to claim -- they wouldn't have received a ticket in the first place if they weren't guilty of speeding.
    But what are the authorities guilty of? If police have a quota to meet, or a sheriff's substation is competing with other substations as to the number of tickets it hands out, discretion will suffer. People who might not normally get a citation are going to be written up. That's not right.
    It's one thing for police officers to come across someone speeding in the course of their normal duties, and write that person a ticket. It's another for them to lie in wait for motorists to make mistakes so the government agency they work for can fleece the citizenry. That's not right either.
    When police set up a speed trap where motorists are likely to be driving over the speed limit -- say, at the bottom of a hill -- and then wait for drivers to meander into their web so they can write tickets that generate revenue for a city, county or state, they're violating a social contract. Those who have sworn an oath to protect us aren't supposed to prey upon us.