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Rhode Island bill would authorize highway camera system to automatically fine uninsured drivers

A Rhode Island House committee passed a bill that would allow a private company to create and operate a highway surveillance system that automatically issues tickets to uninsured drivers. (Getty Images)

Rhode Island Rep. Robert Jacquard (D) sponsored a bill that would allow a private company to create and implement a statewide network of optical license plate readers that would automatically check license plate numbers against a national police database and issue fines to uninsured drivers. The profits from the fines would then be shared with the private company.

According to the Providence Journal, the Rhode Island House Corporations Committee passed the Rhode Island Electronic Confirmation and Compliance System Act in a 7-2 vote on Tuesday evening. Similar legislation has been proposed before over the last several years, but has never made it out of committee.

According to Jacquard, this new bill would help enforce already existing laws.

“We do have a system in place now that verifies whether or not Rhode Islanders are complying with the [mandatory] insurance statute,” Jacquard told Providence Journal on Tuesday. “But it doesn’t know whether you are operating on the road or not.”

The Providence Journal reported that Jacquard's bill will allow a private company to build the highway surveillance system, paying for its construction and implementation out of its own pocket. If the cameras find a license plate that does not match an active registration and insurance policy, a ticket from the state would automatically be issued to the driver.

"It's no different than a red light camera. It's just looking for a different violation," Jacquard told Ars Technica.

The state will split the profits from the ticket 50-50 with the private company running the surveillance system. Estimates say that the state will receive $15 million a year, with fines to drivers capped at $120 per violation.

The Providence Journal reported that civil liberties groups have already voiced opposition to the bill.

“This bill is like a zombie. It rises from the grave and begins to walk around at the end of each session,” said Frank O’Brien, vice president of state government relations for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

O'Brien reportedly testified against the bill, saying that Rhode Island's current law that crack down on uninsured motorists is already working, and that a new camera system would just complicate matters. Additionally, he said that attempting to get states to report to Rhode Island could lead to constitutional violations, as well as technical problems.

“It’s really difficult to see how the information exchange would work,” O’Brien told the Providence Journal.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has also written its opposition to Jacquard's bill, and said that corporations benefiting from insurance penalties is "inappropriate," and that the poor will be greatly burdened by such a law.

"The fines prescribed in this legislation – which are made mandatory, while they are currently discretionary – place upon those individuals a financial burden so high there is little chance they will be able to pay the fees," wrote the ACLU. "When a fee can be paid, however, it nets a significant profit to the vendor operating these cameras."

Two committee's two no-votes were bipartisan: Reps. Jeremiah O’Grady (D), and Antonio Giarrusso (R) both opposed the bill.

As of now, Jacquard is the bill's sole sponsor, and the bill does not have any open supporters in the Senate. As the Rhode Island legislative session is supposed to adjourn soon, it is unlikely the bill will pass this year, although if past history is an indication, Rhode Island drivers haven't seen the last of this idea.

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