Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Montgomery County Legislative Candidates Call For Reversible Lanes on I-270

Two candidates for the state legislature in Montgomery County district 15 are calling for the state to add reversible lanes to I-270 to alleviate traffic concerns.

The father son team of Robin Ficker and Flynn Ficker, running for state senate and state delegate respectively, say the plan is a cost effective approach to addressing traffic congestion.  Robin Ficker said traffic congestion is one of the biggest concerns that District 15 residents have expressed to him.  "Gridlock on I-270 and to a lesser extent, gridlock on 355 and 27 are their biggest transportation concerns." he wrote, and joked that "The voters are thinking the county may soon try to raise money by giving them parking tickets while they are driving on I-270."

There have been proposals for widening I-270 with additional lanes for some time, but most of the push has been to add High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes only.  Robin Ficker felt that creating reversible lanes was a better approach that would save both money and land.  "We need two reversible lanes for cars in the middle of I-270 which could be built for 1/20 the cost per mile of the Purple Line.  There would NOT be tolls for the reversible lanes.  We think it could be done within the existing right of way."

The Montgomery County Council, and some incumbent Montgomery County state lawmakers, have put most of their hopes regarding mitigating traffic problems into mass transit projects.  The County Council has been pushing for a fleet of "rapid transit" buses which would take existing lanes away from cars and make them bus only lanes.  Robin Ficker thought that transit could be part of the solution but could not solve congestion "Putting in bus lanes where we would have one bus every 4 minutes is a waste of money.  Run some buses if you like, but allow cars in the lanes too."

District 15 includes much of 'Upcounty' Montgomery, including Poolsville, Darnstown, Barnesville, and North Potomac.

Robin Ficker is running against Incumbent democrats Brian Feldman, who was appointed to the position by Governor O'Malley after Rob Garagiola left the post for an unsuccessful bid to win a seat in congress.  Incumbents Democrats Kathleen Dumaise, David Fraser-Hidalgo, and Aruna Miller will be facing republican challengers Flynn Ficker, Christine Thron, and Ed Edmonston for three house seats.

Aruna Miller's website touted her support Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013, which sought to replenish the state's transportation trust fund with a gas tax hike that will increase the cost of fuel up to 20 cents a gallon gradually phased in over several years (an 86% increase over the previous state gas tax), and then index further gas taxes increase with inflation.  Miller's website also stated "Aruna is a strong proponent of Corder City Transit Way which is important to District 15.."  The Corridor City Transit Way would be a new "Bus Rapid Transit" system with an estimated price tag of about $525 million.

Candidate Christine Thron's website noted transportation issues as well.  "We have options when it comes to our crowded roads. Of course it would have been better if the Transportation Trust Fund had not been raided of nearly $1 billion dollars and put into the general fund between 2003 and 2011. But we go on. The roads are important to all of us. I-270 is a parking lot twice a day and we are expecting significant increases in population to our area over the next 20 years."

Robin Ficker stated that he thought that the gas tax increase was too much and should not have been indexed to inflation, and also that ICC tolls should be lowered.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Baltimore Sun: RedFlex Lobbying to Win Baltimore City Camera Contract

From the Baltimore Sun:
Traffic camera giant Redflex has been lobbying the Rawlings-Blake administration and City Council to take over Baltimore's once-lucrative speed and red-light camera network — stressing that it should not be judged by an unfolding scandal in Chicago in which a former executive is charged with bribery.
The Arizona-based firm ran Chicago's red-light cameras for a decade, generating $500 million in revenue, but lost the work last year amid city and federal investigations. Officials in Baltimore said Thursday that the company, which was once a finalist to run this city's system, has used the recent talks to distance itself from the Chicago indictments.
[...]
Redflex is the third speed camera company to register lobbyists in an attempt to run Baltimore's system — once the largest in North America. The company has retained local lawyers Kenneth J. Battle Jr. and Kimberly Robinson of the Funk & Bolton firm, who have registered as lobbyists with the city, documents show.
The local system has been shut down for more than a year following The Baltimore Sun's revelations about erroneous tickets. The Sun investigation found errors at many cameras, including tickets issued for slow-moving or stopped cars. When operating, the network of 83 speed cameras and 81 red-light cameras brought more than $140 million to city government through $40 speed camera citations given out in school zones and $75 red light camera tickets.
[...]
Harris said the administration is waiting for the City Council to complete an investigation of Baltimore's camera problems before requesting new bids."We told [Redflex representatives] what we tell everyone: It's not something we're looking to do in the immediate future," Harris said. "If that changes, they can bid like everybody else."
[...]
But Councilman Robert Curran said he's been actively petitioning the administration to find a new operator for safety reasons and to plug the revenue gap.
"Why don't we have them back up? What's going on? We're losing revenue," Curran said. "What are we doing to get the program back up?"
Redflex is at the center of a federal grand jury probe in Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune; the city inspector general is also investigating. Last week, a former Redflex Traffic Systems CEO and a top City Hall manager were indicted on charges of conspiring to rig that city's red-light camera business for a decade. 
The Redflex executive, Karen Finley, was indicted along with former Chicago official John Bills and a longtime Bills friend accused of being the bagman in a $2 million bribery scheme that ran from 2002 until 2012, when the Tribune first disclosed Bills' ties to the company, the paper reported. They all have denied the charges.
[...]
Councilwoman Helen Holton, one of several council members who has been approached by the lobbyists, is eager for the cameras to go back online. Still, she hopes the city insists on more control over the program.
"I look at the revenue that other jurisdictions are getting and ask, 'Why would we not?'" she said. 
Read the complete article in the Baltimore Sun

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

District Court Grudgingly Accepts Innocence as Defense

District Court judges in Montgomery County dismissed three speed camera citations, albeit somewhat reluctantly, after the person named in the citations successfully proved that they were not the driver of the vehicle and argued that state law specifically permits this as a defense.  Both defendants successfully argued that state law does not require that they identify the driver.

Innocent Motorists Prevail in Court --- Barely

On May 12, 2014 Attorney Paul Layer argued that he was not driving the vehicle at the time when two citations were issued under his name.  Layer pointed out that Transportation Article §21-809(f)(1)(ii) specifically permitted that it was a defense if the person named in the citation was not driving.  Transportation Article §21-09(f)(3) required that to exercise this defense, the defendant must mail the court a sworn affidavit stating they were not the driver certified mail return receipt requested, along with "corroborating evidence".  Layer provided the court with plane tickets showing he was not present at the time, and a copy of the statement with the certified mail receipt he had mailed to the court.
Paul Layer: and that being the case, your honor, and the affidavit is self explanatory, that being the case I need to respectfully disagree with the interpretation that I’ve heard from your honor this morning on 21-809. 21-809(f)(3) lays out the requirements for the defense that I’m presenting which I was not the driver. Now, effective October 1, 2009, the Maryland legislature amended the statute and removed any requirement that a defendant who is pleading not guilty on the grounds that they were not the driver, it was removed from the statute any requirement that the defendant identify another driver and what the 21-809(f)(3) is left with is the lower case Roman numerals (i) and (ii) which indicate the requirement that I provide to the district court certified mailing indicating I was not the driver and any other corroborating evidence. I’ve done that through my affidavit to you. I disagree respectfully with your, what you’ve, I’ve heard you talk about this morning –   
Judge: You’re correct, you’re correct, I’m reading it again, you’re correct, it doesn’t require that you name the driver

After the judge declared Layer not guilty, a representative from Montgomery County -- Dan McNickle -- attempted to intervene in the case without being sworn in or called to the stand.  McNickles asked the court to let them reissue the ticket to another individual without having received testimony as to who was driving.  Mr Layer, as a skilled attorney, was able to rebuff this.
"I’ll object, I’m going to object to that, judge. I don’t know who this person is, I don’t know if he’s under oath, I don’t know if he’s testifying or what, but what I think he may be keying into is 21-809(f)(4), and (f)(4) is an instruction to the district court, if you find that there was evidence indicating that there was another person who was driving the vehicle, you can –"
 ...
"I’m simply making an argument to you that section (4) is not activated in this case and respectfully I think it exceeds the court’s authority to order the agency to issue a citation under these circumstances."   
"Judge: I…I wasn’t saying I was ordering them, they asked whether or not they could issue a citation. And certainly (pause) all right, I already said I was finding you not guilty, I’ll keep it that way. All right, have a seat in the front row to get your paperwork. Oh, you’re free to go sir"

The second case was heard on August 11, 2014 before Judge Margaret M. Schweitzer.  The defendant provided the following report:
The judge made a point of explaining to other defendants that a speed-camera citation was "like a parking ticket" -- it applied to the car, she said.  She discussed the ability to walk away with no fine if the defendant had provided a letter to "transfer liability".  At that stage, I wasn't very optimistic that she would accept a straight defense that I wasn't driving absent naming who was "liable".  
...
At my trial, Officer Hebron of the automated enforcement unit testified that the car was "registered to or operated by" me at the time of the alleged civil offense, as he had with all previous defendants.  I asked him several questions:  (1) Did he know or have any evidence that I operated the car at the time of alleged offense? ("No").  (2) Could he recognize the driver in any of the photos taken by the automated equipment at the time of the alleged offense? ("No").  He then testified that the car was registered to me.  I then asked (3) Did he know whether the car was registered to anyone in addition to me?  I was surprised, actually, that he didn't know.
...
I then told the judge that the statute provided for a defense that the defendant was not driving at the time of the alleged offense, and in compliance with Transportation Art.  §21-809(f)(3) I had sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, a letter to the District Court affirming that I was not the driver, and providing corroborating evidence.  The judge said my case file didn't contain the letter (great docketing system, MoCo!), so I provided her a copy (and a copy for the state, even though there was no representative present).  After she read it, I indicated that I wanted to discuss the law.  I said I had complied exactly with the requirements of the law with respect to a defense of factual innocence, and  I reminded her that she had discussed "transfer of liability" earlier in the day.  I said that the law doesn't require that to assert a defense of factual innocence, and began to discuss the State Assembly's amendment removing such a requirement in 2009.  At that point, she interrupted me and said she was familiar with the history, agreed with me that I had complied with the law's requirements, and was finding me not guilty.  And that was that.
We previously wrote that the Montgomery County Circuit Court upheld this defense in December of 2013 in the case of State of Maryland vs Ely case #123554C.  The defendant, who is a founding member of the Maryland Drivers Alliance, proved that he was not driving at the time of the alleged violation and successfully argued this is a defense under state law.


The Maryland Drivers Alliance has created a sample letter to the court for those who might be seeking to utilize this defense.  Note that this defense can only apply if the person named in the citation was not driving the vehicle and can provide some corroborating evidence of this.

Local Governments, Court Defends Citation Language Which Misleads Motorists

One of the reasons few motorists have exercised this defense until now is that they language shown on speed camera citations may be misleading about the requirements of the law regarding this defense.  Citations issued by Montgomery County currently state the following:
TRANSFER OF LIABILITY: If you, as the registered owner, were not operating the vehicle at the time of this infraction and you choose to identify the person who was, you shall provide the District Court a sworn to and affirmed statement and mail by certified mail. Your statement must indicate you swear or affirm that the person named in the citation was not operating the vehicle and include any corroborating evidence. All requests must be received no later than thirty days after the mail date of the citation. Send your request in an envelope marked “Transfer of Liability” to: Montgomery County PO Box 10314, Gaithersburg, MD 20898-0314.

This compares to the statute language.
"The District Court may consider in defense of a violation:"[...]
"(ii) Subject to paragraph (3) of this subsection, evidence that the person named in the citation was not operating the vehicle at the time of the violation; and"
 And paragraph 3 goes on to state:
“(3)   To satisfy the evidentiary burden under paragraph (1)(ii) of this subsection, the person named in the citation shall provide to the District Court a letter, sworn to or affirmed by the person and mailed by certified mail, return receipt requested, that:(i)   States that the person named in the citation was not operating the vehicle at the time of the violation; and(ii)  Includes any other corroborating evidence.”
§21-809(f)(3) previously contained a requirement that the defendant identify the driver.  However this section was deleted from the statute in 2009.  Yet the backs of speed camera citations used across the entire state still refer to this as a "transfer of liability" and state that a person who was not driving must "choose to identify the person who was".

To make matters even more confusing, between 2009 and 2012 the district court had distributed a draft citation which contained entirely different language which more closely matched the meaning of the law than the current citation language.
Q. What if I was not driving the vehicle?A. You must provide a sworn statement in which you swear or affirm that you were not operating the vehicle and include any corroborating evidence.  The statement must include the citation number and be mailed by certified mail, return receipt requested, and be received no later than 30 days after the mail date of the citation.

So far the district court has put its feet down and defended the current language.  District Court spokesperson Angelita Williams stated to us that "the Maryland Judiciary’s position is that the language provided on the speed camera citation is consistent with the requirements of Transportation Article §21-809(d)(1)"  We note that  §21-809(d)(1) is the portion of the statute which specifies what information a citation must contain, including among other things Information advising the person alleged to be liable under this section of the manner and time in which liability as alleged in the citation may be contested in the District Court;” --- not the portion of the statute defining the defense we inquired about (§21-809(f)(1)(ii))

The Maryland Drivers Alliance has sent a complaint to the Chief Judge of the district court requesting that the language be changed.  In our complaint we noted that in order to contest a citation under §21-809(f)(1)(ii), a motorist must take very specifically spelled out steps prior to the hearing, which they would not be able to do if they are misinformed about the law.


District Court to Examine Citation Language

WUSA 9 has done an investigation of this matter, discussing Mr Layer's case.  The District Court told WUSA9 that "While the Judiciary believes the citation's language is fair and balanced, in an attempt to be informative to motorists, an internal committee is currently reviewing the citation's language for clarity."


Montgomery County 'Ombudsman' Says No Such Thing as an 'Ombudsman'

A complaint was also sent to the "Ombudsman" for Montgomery County, Richard Harrison.  Mr Harrison first responded by stating that they don't use the term "ombudsman" -- even though the head of the Safe Speed program identified Mr Harrison using the specific term "ombudsman" to the state legislature to explain why a legislative change they supported would ensure the system was fair.  "Local designee" Mr Richard Harrison defended the current language on the citations claiming that "The statement that appears in the "Transfer of Liability" not legally or procedural incorrect.  It does not "misrepresent" the defense allowed by Section 21-809(f)(1)(2)"

....and thereby proving his point that there is no such thing as an "Ombudsman" for Montgomery County's speed camera program in any sense that most people would understand the term.

When asked whether it was the county's position that a person can be compelled to testify against their spouse in Maryland, Montgomery County ombudsman... er I mean "local designee" Mr Harrison stated that it was the county's position that "in a civil case, a witness does not have a privilege to decline to answer questions about the person's spouse that do not seek the revelation of confidential communications between spouses".

Spousal privilege is recognized under Maryland law.


Gaithersburg Changes Misleading Website

Websites for some local speed camera programs are also misleading about this defense. The City of Gaithersburg's website was even more specifically wrong, stating:
What if I wasn't driving my car at the time of the violation? Am I still responsible for paying the citation?The law provides that the registered owner must provide a signed affidavit that states they were not operating the vehicle at the time of the violation and provide the name, address and, if possible, the driver's license identification number of the person who was driving at the time of the violation. The police have the discretion to then forward the citation notice to the person identified by the registered owner.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance and some motorists sent complaints to the city about this.  Gaithersburg Sgt Scott Scarff initially responded to one motorist by stating "You are incorrect, Section 4 (i) states if the District Court finds that the person named in the citation was not operating the vehicle at the time of the violation or receives evidence under paragraph (3) of this subsection identifying the person driving the vehicle at the time of the violation, the clerk of the court shall provide to the agency issuing the citation a copy of any evidence substantiating who was operating the vehicle at the time of the violation.  The District Court in order to satisfy the requirement of identifying the person requires the name and address of the person at a minimum before they will grant a transfer of liability, our website suggests clearly “if possible” for the letter also to contain the driver’s license of the person who was driving  it no way suggest it is required.. This direction is provided to assist those who are requesting transfers of liability to provide the best information if known to assure that their request is given full consideration and has the best chance of being granted by the District Court."

Our complaint to Gaithersburg noted that the statement on the website was "objectively false" and appeared to come from the deleted portion of the statute.  The city relented and agreed to delete the language from their website and replace it with a link to the statute.  Gaitherburg declined to directly answer our question "Is it the position of the City of Gaithersburg that the defense under transportation article 21-809(f)(1)(ii) requires a defendant to provide a sworn statement which identifies the driver?" with spokesperson Sgt Scott responding "it is the City of Gaithersburg’s position that we follow the evidence requirements in accordance with the Maryland Transportation Article 21-809 (f) (I) (ii). "

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Annapolis Contract With RedSpeed Contains Sweeping Secrecy Clause

When Annapolis signed their speed camera contract with Redspeed, they included an elaborate secrecy clause specifically blocking the public from obtaining most of the technical details about the cameras, how the program is run, and even documents pertaining to the identification of possible errors from public records requests.

The clause uses some of the most restrictive language we have seen in a speed camera contract, and is clearly worded for the specific purpose of thwarting attempts to obtain documentation through the Maryland Public Information Act (the state's equivalent of the FOIA).


The contract, which was signed in 2012, is worded to REQUIRE the city to take a public records request to court if necessary, with RedSpeed funding the legal costs of blocking public access.  The contract even states that RedSpeed would cover "fines and penalties" imposed on the city if they were punished by the court for failing to comply with the MPIA.  That implies that any requester must be willing to pursue a long and expensive court battle to obtain documents even if the basis for the denial would likely be ruled invalid by a court.

A supporter of the Maryland Drivers Alliance filed an MPIA request for several categories of items.
  • All training materials and manuals provided by RedSpeed to the City of Annapolis pertaining to the operation of speed monitoring systems.
  • All training materials and manuals, and reference materials provided by RedSpeed to the City of Annapolis pertaining to the review of speed monitoring system citation. 
  • All training materials and manuals provided by RedSpeed to the City of Annapolis regarding the identification and/or mitigation of speed measurement errors.  This includes, but is not limited to, training materials, manuals, reference materials, and presentations discussing "False Triggers", "cosine error", "radar effects," or discussing the effects of Reflection, Refraction, and/or Absorption on radar.
  • All  training materials pertaining to speed monitoring system which were created by Redspeed or in cooperation with Redspeed for the purpose of providing training to district court judges
The items in the request were partially prompted by a story reported by the Baltimore Sun, which had stated that three defendants had successfully disputed speed camera citations in district court using time-distance calculations to compute speed.  RedSpeed responded to those cases by stating non-specifically that their procedures were "beyond what is mandated by law" and the article stated that "RedSpeed is now offering training on speed camera operations for Anne Arundel judges who preside in traffic court".

And the city apparently has followed through on this.

The city first responded to the request by stating that the documents were in the custody of Redspeed and that the requester could request them from the contractor.  When he actually did so, the Annapolis Police Corporal Amy Miguez initially responded on July 30: "Our program manager at Red Speed, Mario Hernandez, will be sending you the information requested."  However the next day the requester received a letter from the Annapolis Office of Law by email which almost completely denied the request.


We found it particularly interesting that a contract provision discussing confidential information includes documents about "identification and/or mitigation of speed measurement errors".  RedSpeed has encountered speed measurement issues in the past, including an incident in 2012 what RedSpeed attributed to an "electromagnetic anomaly" which caused buses and big panel trucks to be ticketed at incorrect speeds.
=============================================================
UPDATE 8/14/2014: Redspeed releases some documents
RedSpeed has now released some of the training materials responsive to this request.  We will post details on these documents within a few days.

WTOP: DC Placed Speed Camera Inside Maryland

An investigation by WTOP revealed that a District of Columbia speed camera is actually located inside Maryland.

The camera, located at the convergence of East Capitol Street, Southern Avenue and Central Avenue, is actually located about 20 feet inside of Maryland, near the Capital Heights Metros station.
Both a speed and a red light camera are located at this position.  The camera can clearly be seen sitting outside the "Welcome To Washington, DC" sign.

DC officials told WTOP that the camera is legal, because the road being photographed is inside DC....
...And apparently because everything the government does is legal according to the government.

However independent attorneys told WTOP that the camera appears to violate DC's own statute, which says the location of the hardware must be inside DC.
"There are several statutes on this issue. But they all discuss automated traffic enforcement units in the District. That's the phrase: 'In the District.' So the cameras are placed in Maryland illegally," says lawyer Timothy Leahy.
"D.C. statute 50- 2209.11 states that 'automated cameras "should be deployed in the District"' ... To put them in Maryland is illegal. The District can try and explain this away, but it's supposed to follow the law," says lawyer Paul D. Hunt.

WTOP proposed that individuals who receive a ticket from this camera can attempt to dispute it at the DC-DMV, but notes that the hearing process seldom allows any defense regarding a system wide issue.
"You would go before a hearing examiner and make the case that the system is deployed in Maryland. This counsel thinks your defense will be denied at the earliest stages because they're not going to make a pronouncement about citywide policy. So you'd essentially have to go through a long road to the D.C. Court of Appeals before a decision was made," Hunt says.

Attorneys WTOP spoke with noted that the process to force the city to move the camera would be extremely expensive: "Unless you can do it yourself as a lawyer, you're talking about 100 hours of legal time and could spend as much as $20,000 with no guarantees of success over a $100 ticket," adds Hunt.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Baltimore Sun: Xerox Submitted Faulty Data on Howard County Speed Camera Program

From the Baltimore Sun:
Data submitted by Xerox State & Local Solutions for the county's four cameras repeatedly listed more vehicles speeding than there were cars on the road, according to documents reviewed by The Baltimore Sun. The 2013 data sometimes reported that 200 percent, 400 percent or even 600 percent of the number of cars that passed by a camera were speeding. 
County officials say Xerox lost some files that tracked the total number of vehicles on a road. Officials say they do not believe that any erroneous citations were issued to motorists, in part because the citations are generated by a different computer program and undergo a review process. But they say the mistakes in the data are a problem for police trying to monitor the speed camera program.
"We are demanding that this be resolved," said Howard Police Chief Gary Gardner. He said he learned about the problem from The Sun. He said the county has given Xerox until the middle of the month to submit corrected data. "Given the issues that Xerox has had in other jurisdictions, we don't want to have a black mark on our program."
[...]
Even so, some said they believe that the flawed data raises questions about the integrity of the county's speed camera program. 
"If the data smells funny, there probably is a problem," said state Del. Warren Miller, a Howard County Republican. "We really should take a more comprehensive look at the accuracy of these systems. And we shouldn't have vendors like Xerox getting rich off this system if it's not working." 
Miller said he plans to reintroduce a bill in the next General Assembly session that would require quarterly audits of all speed camera programs in Maryland.

Speed camera contractor Xerox had been booted from Baltimore City's speed camera contract in 2012.  An audit by the city (which Baltimore had attempted to keep secret) later revealed that the cameras used there had high rates of errors, including citations issued to stationary cars.

Xerox is also the speed camera contractor for Montgomery County and the Maryland SHA.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Maryland Taxes, Fees on Drivers Greatly Increased in Last Four Years

Costs imposed on motorists by the state of Maryland have been increased greatly over the past four years, with many taxes, tolls, and fees increased 50% or more.

In 2013, the members of the state legislature voted to increase vehicle registration surcharges, and to increase the gas tax increase.  The gas tax increase was set to phase in over several years.  If all increases go into effect the total increase will be 20 cents per gallon by 2016 on top of the 23.5 cent per gallon state gas tax previously in effect (an 86% increase).  However the schedule for the phased in increases ensured that most of the additional tax would be applied after this year's elections.

Additionally, the bill shielded the administration and state legislature from having to vote for future gas tax increases, by causing the gas tax to automatically increase with the consumer price index.

In the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act of 2011, the O'Malley/Brown Administration and the state legislature acted to double the certificate of title fees from $50 to $100.  Vanity Plate fees were also increased from $25 to $50.  The vehicle dealer processing charge was tripled from $100 to $300, and the "vendor dealer credit" was reduced from 1.2% to 6%.

Additionally, Maryland saw substantial toll increases.  For example, crossing the bay bridge increased from $4 to $6 (a 50% increase).  Tolls also went into effect on the newly completed ICC, where the cost of a full one way trip is about $4 during rush hour.  Motorists who wish to use the ICC without an EZ-Pass are charged an additional 50% fee.

Toll rates are set by the Maryland Transit Authority and did not require the legislature's approval.  Members of the MDTA's governing body were appointed by Governor O'Malley and approved by the state senate.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Montgomery County Speed Camera Captain Boasted Of Error Rate "Under Ten Percent"

During the 2013 general assembly, Montgomery County led a concerted taxpayer-funded effort to kill "speed camera reform" legislation which would have ended the practice of paying speed camera contractors a "bounty" based on the number of citations issued, and which would have required speed camera citations to provide secondary evidence of speed to help identify errors.  As part of the campaign to kill this legislation, the head of Montgomery County's speed camera program, Captain Tom Didone, wrote in an email to a state Senator that "Our current error rate by our vendor is under 10%".

Captain Didone, Director of Montgomery County Police Traffic Division, sent the statement on March 20th to the personal email of Senator Madaleno (D, Montgomery County).  The email was composed after he was asked by Verna Price of the Montgomery County Office of Inter-Government Relations a question pertaining to Senate Bill 207, a credible speed camera reform bill sponsored by Senator James Brochin (D, Baltimore County).

"Does the flat fee rate result in a higher error rate?", prompted Price.
Didone responded: "The short answer is yes, that is our belief and fear what will happen.  Our current rate by our vendor is under 10%.  Without proper incentive or management, we could expect the potential error rates to be much higher."
Complete Email.... these statements are not "taken out of context"
Didone argued that paying per ticket gave the county leverage against the contractor .  In the email, he dismissed the notion that a flat fee contract might include specific incentives to maximize accuracy  "Contract provisions can be added but this often involves a legal process in which the vendors rarely get held accountable."

 "[They] only get paid to produce quality citations" wrote Tom Didone,"this can achieve an accuracy rate in the 90% range."

Senate Bill 207 was introduced in response to systematic speed measurement errors discovered in Baltimore City, where the speed camera program has been shut down since April of 2013 due to the discovery that a limited number of cameras had error rates of five percent. Legislation was also prompted by a statement from Governor O'Malley that contracts based on the number of tickets did not comply with the intent of state law.  Baltimore City previously ran its speed camera program under a per-ticket fee arrangement with speed camera contractor Xerox Corporation, the same contractor currently employed by Montgomery County.  An investigation by the Baltimore Sun forced Xerox Corporation to admit that 5% of the citations at some Baltimore City locations were in fact due to errors, and a secret city audit leaked in 2014 confirmed high error rates in the city across the board. Baltimore paid their contractor based on the number of citations, under terms similar to Montgomery County's contract.

"The Bottom line is this.  The vendors are a for profit business.  The leased or flat camera fee removes their incentive to always produce quality photographs or citations" wrote Didone.

An existing provision of state law states "If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid.".  However this rule has been effectively nullified by local governments who, following the advice of the Office of Attorney General Doug Gansler, do not use the word "operate" in their contracts to describe what the contractors does.  Governor O'Malley stated in December 2012 that "The law says you're not supposed to charge by volume. I don't think we should charge by volume, If any county is, they need to change their program."

Nevertheless, Montgomery County continued to actively oppose changing the law to require local governments to meet the statue's original intent, at taxpayer expense.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Speed Limit on US-1 in College Park Lowered, Speed Camera Enforcement to Increase

College Park officials voted unanimously to increase speed camera enforcement to run 24/7, as the SHA announced that the speed limit on US-Route 1 withing College Park will be decreased from 30mph to 25mph.  The city will be looking at the possibility of adding additional cameras sites on US-1 as well.

City officials state that the change was prompted by three recent pedestrian traffic fatalities, all of which were alcohol related.  College Park has had speed cameras in place since 2010, including cameras located on US-1 very near where the fatalities took place, as well as several other locations in the city.

College park brought in over $3,600,000 worth of speed camera fines in FY2011 (out of a total city budget of $16.3 million).  However revenues from the cameras had declined substantially since then to an estimated $1.243 million in FY14.  The city's FY15 budget calls for this amount to increase to $1,600,000 in FY2015.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Insurance Company AAA Actively Promotes Speed Cameras

You've seen them in the news and on TV talking about speed cameras in Maryland and DC, and may have believed that AAA has been hard at work defending motorist's rights on this issue.

If  you thought that, you were wrong.  AAA is an insurance company which supports and lobbies in favor of speed cameras.  

Reality Check
AAA testified IN FAVOR of statewide speed cameras in Maryland in 2009.
"On behalf of our approximately 900,000 Maryland members, AAA Mid-Atlantic supports SB 277, which would expand the authority to use speed monitoring systems statewide and would add the authority to use them in highway work zones." wrote AAA Mid Atlantic in their 2009 testimony.

AAA also opposed the repeal of speed cameras in 2013, standing up in a public hearing next to representatives of one of the most troubled local speed camera programs in the state, and in opposition to motorists who came to support repeal, to support the continuation of Maryland's speed camera law.

Lon Anderson: AAA Mid Atlantic Director of Public and Government Relations
In fact AAA didn't just jump on the speed camera bandwagon after the fact, they were helping to pull the wagon.  All the way back in 2002, AAA Mid Atlantic's Lon Anderson bemoaned that speed cameras had not been authorized by the legislature at that time, and stated to the Gazette that AAA had testified in favor of those bills.  "If this legislation had been enacted ... we could have had a model program in the nation"  stated Anderson.  If Lon Anderson and AAA had their way, Maryland wouldn't have gotten its first speed cameras in 2007... we'd have gotten them five years sooner.

The vote on statewide speed cameras in 2009 was VERY CLOSE in the state senate, down to just a few votes.  If AAA had come out strongly against this, rather than providing political cover with their support, we would likely not have statewide speed cameras in Maryland today.

In fact Lon Anderson took credit for Maryland's Statewide Speed cameras being enacted.  When speaking with Washington Post's Dr Gridlock in 2010 Lon Anderson said : "I worked hard to get the speed camera law passed in Maryland, and the red light camera laws reinstated in Virginia."

Perhaps with a little more help from AAA soon Virginia can have a defective, error prone speed camera program like Baltimore's too!

In 2013 AAA also helped organize a secret speed camera meeting, which members of the public and the press were barred from observing.  AAA assisted in planning the closed event, in coordination with the heads of Maryland's biggest county speed camera programs, which included training representatives from local speed camera programs in how to conduct public relations, how to conduct media campaigns, and also discussing upcoming legislation.

We know some of you may be surprised to hear this.  But then how would AAA representatives be able to go on TV to complain about how badly Maryland's speed cameras have been administered if they hadn't worked to put them there in the first place?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Montgomery County Advances Plan To Take Lanes From Motorists

Montgomery County is moving ahead with a rapid bus transit plan which would result in motorists having fewer lanes available to them while they end up paying higher taxes to fund the program.

WTOP reports on the transit plan:
Getting the job done will require the reworking of a lot of major roads. It would mean narrowing existing lanes where you drive, shortening the shoulder, buying up lanes or paving over grass in the median between lanes.
A draft document from the Montgomery County Planning Board finds that most of these roads can support a brand new 11-foot lane without too many changes for drivers.
The proposed network would include lines on Md. 355, U.S. 29, Georgia Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, Veirs Mill Road and Randolph Road. But the most likely scenario would include the Md. 355, U.S. 29 and Veirs Mill Road routes being built first, the others later.
But some stretches along 29 in Four Corners and 355 near the National Institutes for Health and Walter Reed can't accommodate new lanes. 
Along these stretches, a proposal would take away a current lane of traffic for cars and repurpose it for buses only. People living in these areas have opposed that idea because they are worried it'll make bad traffic even worse for drivers. 
The plan is based on the unproven assertion that it will relieve traffic congestion by encouraging motorists to give up driving.  Those taken in by this idea often allow themselves to believe the fantasy that a transit project will make their commute better because OTHER motorists will use it and make room for them on the road.  However this wishful thinking is doomed to fail because other drivers are thinking the same thing.

The fact is that the county is not capable of providing transit routes between all homes and people's work places.  Except for those people who both live and work along the route, most would end up having to walk or take other transportation at one or both ends of their commute, and that ends up taking significantly more time than driving even taking traffic congestion into consideration. Furthermore, even this "rapid" transit line will still make frequent stops, and thus won't be faster than driving in most cases.  Since time is the basis on which most drivers arrive at their choice of commuting options, most drivers will not stop driving to work unless this plan succeeds in making driving conditions so much worse for drivers that driving becomes am unacceptable option.  What is more disturbing is that this may be what some members of the county government actually want.


Despite this, motorists will still be the ones who pay for Ike Legget's plan.  The proposal is likely to cost $1billion-$2billion to implement.  The county has yet to figure out where the money would come from, but it would likely be either from motorists' recently increased state gas taxes, or from their property taxes.

Drivers should not be deceived by the county government's false assertion that this expensive plan paid for by motorists will make their commute easier.
One thing is for certain: if motorists do not become more vocal and more organized about defending their own interests, we will continue to be last served when it comes to transportation planning and the first ones taxed to pay for things every other interest group wants.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

$ick of $cameras? Get out and VOTE!

This Tuesday, June 24 is the Maryland primary election.  Motorists must make their voices heard in both November and June votes or our interests and our rights will continue to be neglected.  If you don't vote you are getting the government you deserve!

Opinion: OAG an Important Decision for Voters, Motorists

With Maryland primaries only days away those voters who are not bored by the process probably have their minds on who will get the governorship, maybe county council races, and a few hotly contested legislative districts.  But The Attorney General's position is one statewide office which can have a direct bearing on motorist.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Prince George's Sentinel: Circuit Court Rules Against Morningside

In today's Prince George's Sentinel:
UPPER MARLBORO – On May 23, a Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge ruled the town of Morningside broke the law when town officials refused to provide information about its speed camera program in a timely manner.
[...]
According to Judge Albert Northrop’s order, Morningside “failed to maintain the requested records, conduct a reasonable search for the records, or provide [Ely] with the name and possible location of a possible custodian,” pursuant to the law. “If Respondent had been compliant this lawsuit would not have been necessary,” Northrop wrote in the court order.
Read the entire article at:
http://www.thesentinel.com/pgs/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=474:circuit-court-rules-against-morningside&Itemid=766

The chairman of the Maryland Drivers Alliance brought the case "pro se" after Morningside denied a request under the Maryland Public Information Act for speed camera calibration records in 2013.  "Please be advised that the Town of Morningside is not the speed monitoring system operator as that term is defined in the Maryland Annotated Code, and, therefore, the Town of Morningside does not maintain the records and documents pursuant to your request."  The specific records requested in this case were "daily setup logs" and "annual calibration certificates" which Maryland's speed camera law specifically states "shall be kept on file", indicating a statutory requirement for the agency to have the records and that they should be disclosable public records under the MPIA.

The case could have implications for the transparency of speed camera programs, but also for local government transparency in other matters as well.  As stated in the May 29th ORDER "Respondent argued that the records were not in its possession because they were held by a contractor.  To allow public records held by a contractor to be exempt from the Public Information Act would be to render the entire act ineffective."

There have been few cases dealing with the issue of public records outsourced to the custody of a private contractor under Maryland law.  The Attorney General Manual on the MPIA states "an agency’s records remain “public records” even if the agency outsources the task of maintaining them to a private contractor".  The federal FOIA has much more extensive guidance written by the DOJ that "agency records maintained for an agency by an entity under Government contract, for the purposes of records management, remain subject to the FOIA".

Such documents must clearly be "public records" rather than "contractor records" because of the statutory requirement for retention, because of the fact that these documents are required for citations to be issued by agency police and for citations to be upheld in court, and because Brekford confirmed to us that their clients have immediate access to all of the requested documents.

In May, Brekford Corporation complied with a subpoena to produce the calibration records we had been seeking for 11 months since the request was originally placed with the town.  On June 12 the Attorney for Morningside submitted a consent motion and agreed to reimburse $307 in actual costs in compliance with the May 29th court order.

Recent related story:
http://www.mddriversalliance.org/2014/05/morningside-brekford-part-ways-speed.html

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Opinion: Speed Camera "Reform" Turned Out to Be Election Year Ploy

In the past year there has been much ado from state lawmakers about how they were going to "reform" Maryland's speed camera law.  These proposals were brought about by a number of things including:
     - Proven, systematic, erroneous speed readings in Baltimore.  This included examples of stationary cars getting tickets, trucks accused of moving twice their actual speed, an admission from Xerox that their cameras produced "radar effects" (that's how they say "error" without using the word "error"), and a "secret" audit showing error rates of up to ten percent.... adding up to tens of thousands of false accusations.  And all from cameras which passed calibration tests which are supposed to guarantee cameras are accurate.
     - Calibration problems in places like Hagerstown, Salisbury, and Greenbelt
     - Complaints of errors in other places like Wicomico County, Forest Heights, College Park, Cheverly, Montgomery County, and Morningside
     - An audit of the SHA's speed camera program showed that the state skimped on its own testing procedures, calibration practices, and procurement policies.
      - Local governments systematically circumvented an existing rule in the law designed to forbid the so called "bounty system": paying contractors based on the number of citations issued.  Even Governor O'Malley has said this practice violates the original intent of state law.

All these problems and much more.  This was not "a few isolated problems"... it was widespread and systematic.  People were calling for audits.  They were calling for cameras to be required to provide "secondary evidence" to identify speed measurement errors.  There were calls for outside oversight of local speed camera programs by the state.  So this year the leadership in the state legislature resolved to pass "reform".  And in a demonstration of true political snakishness the legislature did pass a bill... a bill which promised the world but actually did NONE of these things... and have now declared the system is "reformed".

Right now the state lawmakers who voted for speed cameras in the first place are patting themselves on the backs for what they think has been a successful spin campaign to dupe the public into believing that the so called speed camera reform act has fixed these gaping problems.  We have explained in the past why this change to the law amounts to little more than "Polishing Poop" and won't really change anything.  Yet given that the supporters of speed cameras are currently conducting a massive media campaign to con the public, it bears repeating why this legislation does not solve the actual problem.

First, the supporters of the "Speed Camera Reform in Name Only Act of 2014"  assert that the problem with Maryland's speed camera law was that local governments were not doing enough to monitor their contractors.  In this they are almost half right.  But the real problem is that nobody was monitoring municipal speed camera programs, or ensuring that the rules were enforced.  Since everything is self enforced, why should they not break the rules, or bend them until they are meaningless?  Efforts to change this situation and include audits, oversight by the state, or an audit-able trail in the form of "secondary evidence of speed" to root out errors, were never seriously considered by the leadership of the committee which conjured this bill.

Second, lawmakers want the public to believe that this bill "ends the bounty system".  The reality is that rumors of the death of the Bounty System have been greatly exaggerated, and today the overwhelming majority of speed camera contracts still pay vendors a cut of the ticket proceeds.  One speed camera contractor has already boasted about signing NEW contract extensions which lock in existing "bounty system" contracts for years.

In addition, one should not forget that the bounty system was never supposed to exist in the first place, and that the ORIGINAL speed camera law that was in place for years already contained language clearly intended to forbid the practice.  We pointed out to the legislature a loophole in the language of the new law which may allow contractors to continue being paid based on the number of tickets so long as they don't explicitly use the words "per ticket" in their contract.  The committee knows about it, and deliberately decided not to fix it.  Montgomery County officials has been quoted by the Sentinel stating that the bill allows "hybrid leases", which would presumably not be truly flat fees.  And one county has already devised a scheme to avoid "the bounty system" using semantics, which their vendor has claimed is completely equivalent to their old system.

So there was an existing rule, and and existing promise, the clear intent of that rule has been consistently broken with semantic games by local governments across the whole state.  Now they tell us "We've created a new rule which makes it all better and we promise to start complying with it... but not for another THREE YEARS."  After the elections are long over.  After most people have forgotten what was promised.  If you believe that they are not going to engage in new legalistic semantic games to circumventing this rule and continuing to pay vendors a cut of the ticket revenues, then I have some ocean front property in North Dakota I'd like to sell you cheap.

Other provisions of the new law are similarly loophole ridden or ineffective.  But more importantly, they are all self-enforced.  If a local government does not WANT to enforce them, they will go unenforced and there is nothing anyone on the outside of the program can do about it.  That was the original problem with Maryland's speed camera law, and since the state has willfully chosen not to provide outside oversight that has not changed.

Finally, the supporters of this legislation want you to believe this bill represents some sort of "grand bargain" between speed camera supporters and opponents.  That would be utterly false.  The truth is that this bill was largely written by Montgomery County's speed camera program and by other local governments which run speed cameras (mostly though their representatives Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League).  Montgomery County has boasted how they will see few changes with this bill, and how they "worked closely" with sponsors of the bill to ensure this would be the case.  Local governments like Gaithersburg and Rockville each wrote "Protecting the Speed Camera Program" as part of their legislative agenda for the year, and in this they have declared success.

There were alternative, stronger proposals for reform, and the true purpose of this bill was to PREVENT those proposals from passing, without lawmakers from needing to actually vote on them.  And then the vice chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee, Delegate Malone, began the Feb 18th hearing on those bills by openly stating that no bills but his own would be considered.  Malone even went so far as to follow this up in the Motor Vehicles Subcomittee hearing by stating that he didn't think people with complaints about speed cameras should bring them to the legislature.  How is anyone to conclude that Malone, a key sponsor of the bill which just passed, actually cared about reform?  Calls for audits were cut off.  Reasonable amendments made by the Maryland Drivers Alliance specifically to protect the legal rights of motorists in small simple ways were never even considered.  Opponents of speed cameras, and the press, were even banned from meetings where speed cameras were discussed by local governments.  Supporting speed cameras was a price of a seat at the table, and when this bill was dumped on the floor the word to camera critics was "Take it because it's better than nothing."  There was no serious debate this year... when the hearings opened the political establishment had already decided to pass the weakest bill they possibly could, "reform in name only" which would have no significant effect on most existing programs, and to pass absolutely no more.

Indeed the bill does not even affect the State's own program AT ALL, since it does not apply to the separate statute which govern's the SHA's program.  How serious could the state have been about reform if it exempted itself?

The newly passed speed camera bill is just an election year ploy. Its purpose is to allow the lawmakers who voted for speed cameras to be able to claim they have "fixed" the law, and are assuming that the average motorist is too uninformed to realize the truth: that they are the ones who broke it and chose to keep it broken by ignoring stronger proposals for reform.  They are assuming you are too gullible to look past it.  If you're not falling for it, you can see your state lawmakers' real voting record on this issue here, and your state delegates can rightly be judged on how they voted on an amendment to repeal speed cameras.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Drivers are "Biggest Loser" in DC Transportation Plan, Toll Roads Planned

Motorists visiting the nation's capital should expect more road taxes and may experience an active effort to deter driving in the future, if city planners have their way.  From Today's Washington Post:
A draft of the District’s long-range transportation plan calls for toll lanes at major entry points into the city and other efforts aimed at keeping vehicles off downtown’s congested streets.
MoveDC, which looks ahead to 2040, envisions a city with a wide transit network that includes a streetcar system, dedicated bus lanes in major commuter corridors, expanded Metrorail service in the downtown core, an active water taxi system and 200 miles of on-street bicycle facilities.
Widening the transportation choices and deterring personal vehicle use are key to meeting the increasing demand for transit in a city that projects 170,000 new residents and 200,000 additional jobs in the next 25 years, D.C. transportation officials say.
[...]
 “If we continue to grow and don’t try to address vehicular traffic and make improvements, it will choke on ourselves,” said Sam Zimbabwe, associate director for policy and planning at DDOT. “If we did nothing, if we sort of left the system just as it is and we add all those people, we will have some real severe problems.”
Encouraging carpooling and transit use can help make the system more manageable, he said. But recommendations to manage traffic into the city — the main employment center in the region — with measures such as tolls and HOV lanes are likely to be controversial in an area where the car is still king. Smart-growth advocates, however, praised DDOT’s plan and its vision to expand and encourage transit, walking and biking.
Read the complete article on the Washington Post

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Brekford Press Release Proves New Speed Camera Rules Have Changed Nothing

Speed Camera Contractor Brekford Corporation has published a press release boasting that they have been awarded multi year contract extensions which allow them and their clients to avoid newly created speed camera rules for years to come.
Brekford Corp. (the "Company") (OTCBB: BFDI) (OTCQB: BFDI), a leading public safety technology service provider of automated traffic safety enforcement ("ATSE") solutions, parking enforcement solutions, and an end-to-end suite of technology equipment for public safety vehicle services, today announces contract extensions of its existing clients including the City of Laurel, the City of Hagerstown, and the City of Salisbury, Maryland.
With many of the Company's Maryland contracts due to expire this year, extension discussions were complex as the Maryland legislature was debating SB350, also known as the "Speed Monitoring System Reform Act of 2014," which became law on June 1, 2014. Among other revisions to the original 2009 legislation authorizing cameras statewide in Maryland, the Act states that a presently existing obligation, contract, or contract right may not be impaired in any way and that the Act does not repeal any current obligation, contract, or contract right in existence before the effective date of the Act through June 1, 2017.
We are excited to be awarded multi-year contract extensions with an overwhelming majority of our clients," commented Rod Hillman, President and Chief Operating Officer of Brekford Corp. "This validates Brekford's commitment to superior customer service and integrity with respect to supporting critical public safety initiatives such as ATSE.
In other words, the speed camera "bounty system" is still alive and well, and will be unaffected for years to come.

The authors of the newly passed speed camera legislation, who want you to believe "everything is just fine now", have been conducting a public relations campaign claiming how this bill fixes the gaping problems with Maryland's speed camera law.  Of course the Maryland Divers Alliance knew all along this bill was "reform in name only" and that nothing would be different on June 1 when it went into effect.  We have written about this bill at length previously.  The fact that local governments could sign new contract extensions to avoid all the new rules for years to come was one of the issues we raised.  But this is issue which the cheerleaders for the meaningless reforms, who want people to incorrectly think that they systematic problems with Maryland's speed camera law are all fixed (so they can come back in future years and work to expand speed cameras), are entirely glossing over.

Brekford's press release comes on the tail of news that the Town of Morningside did not continue their contract with Brekford for the town's troubled camera program. However it's not completely clear whether the discontinuation of that contract was the idea of the town, the contractor, or a mutual decision.

We have argued that the speed camera reform act is merely a paper tiger intended to mislead the public and the press in an election year, and that it will actually have little or no practical effect.  Right off the top, the state exempted their own program from all new rules, since the SHA's program is covered by a different statute than the one which governs local speed camera programs.

Montgomery County has boasted that the bill will have little effect on their own program, and in fact that they wrote much of the bill's provisions.  The Montgomery County Sentinel wrote that Montgomery County Police Captain Tom Didone stated that their program would see "few changes" under the new rule, and that he had "worked closely with Delegate James Malone (D-12A, Baltimore and Howard Counties) in drafting the legislation".  Didone also confirmed in the Sentinel article that the bill would allow a "hybrid-type lease”, rather than a flat fee, to replace their existing "per ticket" arrangement.

Our own analysis of the bill is that such "hybrid" leases could still pay based on ticket volume, so long as they do not state that they are explicitly "per-ticket".  Should anyone double that such a legal gimmick is possible, they need only look at the fact that the rules of the original law were supposed to ban payments based on the number of tickets in the first place.  However Mongomery County's team of taxpayer funded attorneys INVENTED the loophole which is now commonly referred to as the "bounty system", and all the other local speed camera programs in the state followed suit.  They are now no doubt working to circumvent the new rules to continue paying based on ticket volume in some way indefinitely.  Indeed Wicomico County has proposed a way to get around the "bounty system" ban, before it was even passed, by breaking the per-ticket payments into four separate payments based on ticket volume, which their vendor has stated was "created to be equivalent to the old system" they had before.

Of course as is made plain by Brekford's press release,  they don't need to worry about that for 3 years anyways.  By which time you will have forgotten about this posting, the public will have forgotten about the tens of thousands of false accusations made by erroneous speed cameras in Baltimore, state lawmakers making promises to you now will have been safely re-elected, and speed camera companies and taxpayer funded lobbying groups working for local government speed camera programs will be hard at work trying to expand automated enforcement and remove existing restrictions in the law.   Don't you just love politicians?

Monday, June 2, 2014

A day in speed camera court

Speed camera cases are heard by a variety of judges who are assigned on a rotating schedule.
 

Here's how the morning court session went on a recent day in Montgomery County.  The judge was James Sarsfield.

The speed camera dockets were posted in the foyer near the elevators.  There were 45 names listed on the Montgomery County speed camera docket and 8 names listed on the Gaithersburg city speed camera docket.

At 9:00 AM, the bailiff, Dennis Jackson, spoke from the front of the court room and reminded everyone to turn off cell phones, to keep conversations to a minimum, and that reading was not allowed, except for reading of material related to court. 

At 9:05 AM, the clerk said "Please rise", and Judge Sarsfield walked in and sat at the bench.   Judge Sarsfield then said "Please be seated."

Judge Sarsfield made a brief speech explaining that defendants could simply pay the $40 fine before trial if they desired to do so.  He said that defendants who are found guilty at trial will be assessed a fine plus court costs of $22.50.   Sarsfield also reminded defendants that those who pay the fine or are found guilty will not be charged with any "points" on their driving record, not will their car insurance be increased due to a a finding of "guilty".   It sounded like a sales talk to try to get people to plead guilty and avoid a trial.  No one took Judge Sarsfield up on his offer to pay the fine before trial.

Montgomery County sent three representatives to testify against defendants.  The first was speed camera technician K.D. Burriss, a large blond woman in her 50's.  The second was a portly gentleman with a gray beard, R.F. Hebron, also a speed camera technician. Both speed camera technicians were dressed in black uniforms.  The third representative was the manager of the Montgomery County speed camera program, a partly bald gentleman dressed in a suit.

The docket was called in alphabetical order by first name (not last name).

About 1/4 of the defendants did not show up for court.

Of the remaining defendants, all except one were found guilty.  In most cases Judge Sarsfield reduced the fine to $20 plus court costs, so the defendant came out only a $2.50 worse than if he or she had simply paid the citation.   (Of course, that doesn't take into account the cost of parking or the value of the defendant's time or lost wages.)

One of the defendants was a lawyer who specializes in defending traffic citations   Judge Sarsfield recognized him at the beginning of the hearing and said "I'm surprised to find you here."  The lawyer presented his defense rather professionally, and then Judge Sarsfield found him guilty without giving any explanation.   After the case was heard, the lawyer told the MDA observer that Judge Sarsfield finds substantially everyone guilty in speed camera court.

The only person to be found "not guilty" was a lady who brought her passport with visa stamps showing that she was not in the USA when the alleged violation occurred.   Judge Sarsfield did not ask the defendant who was driving her car when the alleged violation occurred. 

Even the most bizarre claims by the county speed technicians were accepted as fact by Judge Sarsfield. In contrast, evidence presented by defendants was uniformly disregarded by Judge Sarsfield.  

The bottom line is that if your case is scheduled to be heard by Judge Sarsfield, it's probably best to have it postponed so that it will be heard by a different judge.


Upcoming speed camera trial dates for Montgomery County

Would you like to watch speed camera trials, perhaps in preparation for your own case?

Speed camera court is open to the public.  Here is the schedule for June and July for District Court in Montgomery County:

June 9
June 30
July 14


All speed camera hearings are held at the District Court building located at 8552 Second Avenue in Silver Spring.   The most convenient and least expensive place to park is at the county-operated Cameron Street Garage that is about one block from the courthouse.  Cash and credit-cards are accepted at the payment machines.

After entering the building, you will have to pass through a metal detector and possibly be padded down. You will be required to remove your belt and outerwear when you pass through the metal detector.   You will not be asked to show ID and no one will ask who you are or why you are there.

Cell phones may be taken into the courtrooms but they must be turned off.

Hearings generally run from about 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., depending on the caseload and how fast the judge wants get out the courtroom.

You can sit anywhere in the courtroom except for the first row and the area that is reserved for law enforcement officers.

You are allowed to take notes.  Voice recording devices may not be used in the courtroom.  You will not be allowed to read books, use Kindles, Androids, or IPads, do knitting or sewing, or perform any activity that is not court-related.   You can, however, read paper law documents, paper law books, and your own notes.  When bailiffs see someone taking notes, they occasionally ask if the note-taking is court-related.  All that you need to do is say "yes" and they'll leave you alone.

For the speed camera court schedule for other counties, call the District Court for your county.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Morningside, Brekford Part Ways; Speed Cameras Taken Down

WTOP reports that speed cameras located on Suitland Road in Morningside have been removed after Morningside and speed camera contractor Brekford agreed not to renew their photo enforcement contract which was due to expire.
Freshly planted Grass at former camera site.  Photo from WTOP

The town has stated their intent to find a new vendor.  "We are interviewing other possible vendors. Brekford did a great job," says Morningside Town Attorney Todd Pounds in an email to WTOP.

The town has had to face a number of tough questions about their speed camera program.  WTOP had asked Morningside though a public information act request for documentation that they had advertised their speed camera sites prior to activation, a requirement of state law.

The town also faced criticism for having deployed the cameras despite the fact that the county actually denied their request for permission to place the cameras on a county road.  Morningside claimed that the county did not reply quickly enough to deny the request and deployed the cameras anyways.

Some motorists also disputed the accuracy of the cameras with videos, according to a prior WTOP report.

One motorist reported earlier this year that Morningside failed to even appear at a hearing where she was disputing a ticket, which was overturned as a result.

Last year the editor of the Maryland Drivers Alliance website filed a public information act request for calibration records from the town's cameras, both daily setup logs and annual calibration certificates.  State law requires such records to be "kept on file".  Town Attorney Todd Pounds responded that the town was not required to maintain such records because "Morningside is not the speed monitoring system operator".

We subsequently filed for judicial review to obtain the records.  In April of this year the judge directed that a subpoena be issued to contractor Brekford o produce the records we requested.  Brekford did comply with the subpoena and was able to produce most of the documents in the initial request.  The subpoena revealed that on a few days within the range of dates we requested no daily setup logs could be found in Brekford's records, even though they had indicated that citations had been issued.

The documents also revealed that several cameras which had been used in the town previously had been issued annual calibration certificates by the manufacturer.  State law requires that devices be certified by an "independent calibration laboratory".  Using manufacturer certifications for the first year is a practice which has taken place in other speed camera programs and which has drawn criticism the past as violating the intent of state law.  This is an issue which was specifically debated by the state legislature over the past two years and determining whether this had taken place in Morningside was part of our reason for the original request.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance editor had filed a second MPIA request with the town in March of 2014, this time for daily setup logs from a range of dates and counts of the number of citations issued by Morningside for a specific period of time in 2013.  The town attorney failed to produce those documents as well and provided the following response to the request :
1.      As you previously have been informed, the Town does not, and is not obligated to, maintain the logs pursuant to this request.
2.      Morningside does not issue citations, thus, does not maintain documents pursuant to this request.
3.      The Town of Morningside is not the systems operator as defined in that statute.


Despite this assertion, citations issued by Morningside are clearly labeled as coming from "Town of Morningside Police Department".   Daily setup logs produced by Brekford have shown that they are clearly labeled as "Town of Morningside, MD", not "Brekford Corp", and bear the town of Morningside's seal and the signature of a Town of Morningside employee.  This demonstrates that Morningside clearly had access to the system where the documents we requested are stored, and that the documents they denied having are public records created by and belonging to Morningside's speed camera program.

The attorney for Brekford Corp was more forthcoming witbh straight answers than Morningside has been.  When asked  "Have employees of The Town of Morningside been given access to a database or file system where items 2 and 4 are stored?  Specifically, is there a web site, application, or similar system through which such records can be accessed by authorized employees of Brekford's client?"  Brekford's attorney Matt Schroll replied via email "Yes.  Trained and certified representatives of the client have direct access to this and all information provided in response to your subpoena."  This would seem to indicate that Morningside was entirely capable of complying the Maryland Drivers Alliance's MPIA request at any time in the past eleven months had they chosen to be transparent.

Additional Coverage:
TheSentinel: No more speed cameras in Morningside -- for now