True, Morgan, we don’t have at hand a tidy constitutional argument against traffic enforcement cameras. Our argument hangs on a messy premise: that there should be a “human element in law enforcement.” How can we defend such a claim? You are right that we won’t find our answer in the the constitution or the rule of law. We’d be barking up the tree, because, as you noted, you (and countless others) have indeed broken the law. Simple as that. So the debate then shifts to matters of institutional policy and implementation, how cops do their jobs.

The letter of the law says nothing of how many cops should be on the street. Nor should it attempt to. Rather, it simply determines legal questions such as the correct speed limit. We could have, under the rule of law, a state of perfect enforcement, a cop on every corner. Every speeder, every red light runner, and any other violater of law would be caught and punished accordingly. They were in the wrong, and they were caught. No problems from a legal perspective here.

But why do we limit the scope of law enforcement?

We do it for a number of reasons. Sometimes, for instance, it’s because a new technology is not as perfect and certainly not as desirable as we once thought. And other times it’s because, simply put, we don’t want a cop on every corner. We can argue this along myriad lines. Economically, there is a point at which administrative and judicial costs (because we won’t jettison that pesky thing we call due process) will exceed incoming revenues. In other words, a glut of speeders would create a case backlog that would be– well– not worth it. Or we can take this on from a very different perspective and focus on the new technology’s effect on personal autonomy. If I know there is a finite number of cops on the road, I can make a choice whether to speed. I assess the costs and the benefits for myself and, likely, extract some benefit from making that choice. But in a world of perfect law enforcement, that choice is gone. One will blindly obey the speed limit, for fear of being caught at any time.

What changes about law when the choice to break the law disappears? Is it still a “law” as we know it?
Daniel Corbett