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:

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:

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

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Baltimore County Issues Tickets Three Years Late

WBALTV News reports that Baltimore County recently issued hundreds of tickets for violations that occurred as much as three years ago.

State law requires that citations be issued within 14 days for vehicles registered in state, or 30 days for vehicles registered outside Maryland.  The incident involved vehicles that were leased or rented.
The tickets involved citations issued to rented or leased vehicles.  Apparently the county had built up a "backlog" of such citations to "transfer" to the vehicle renter/lessee, many of which were years old, and a county employee only recently asked vendor Xerox Corp to issue the tickets.

One motorist commented to WBALV:
"I laughed. I thought it was a joke," said Stan Constatine about his reaction when he realized the speed camera ticket he was about to pay showed a violation date of April 22, 2011.
"I think what should happen is there should be an audit of all of these citations," Constatine said.
This past year State lawmakers were offered several proposals for bills to audit speed camera programs.  However the leadership of he House Environmental Matters Committee refused to incorporate audits into the law due to opposition from state and local government agencies who did not want outside oversight.

The county's speed camera vendor, Xerox, forwarded Channel 11 News' questions to a Baltimore County representative, who said about 400 tickets were never mailed out to violators until now because of a glitch in Xerox's system.

Approximately 400 of these citations were issued.  Baltimore County has stated that they would void the tickets, and issue refunds for any motorists who have paid the tickets. [....since the press is aware of it]  County officials said they were negotiating with vendor Xerox to attempt to collect $8000 in "lost revenue" from the tickets.

Xerox Corporation is the same vendor who was involved in the speed camera accuracy issues that occurred in Baltimore City, which according to an audit may have resulted in as many as 10% of all citations issued by the city being in error.  Xerox is the same vendor used by Montgomery County and the SHA.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Washington Post: Montgomery County Delegate Had DUI Arrest

The Washington Post reports that Maryland State Delegate Tom Hucker, a candidate for Montgomery County Council, had a prior 2009 arrest for DUI.

An arrest record shows that D.C. police responded to a crash on the 3600 block of 16th street NW, according to the Post.  A breath test showed a blood alcohol level of 0.09%, above the 0.08% legal limit.  Hucker was charged with driving under the influence and operating a vehicle while impaired.  No injuries from the accident were noted in the police report.  Hucker was sentenced to attend a series of weekend classes on alcohol awareness.

The incident does not appear to have been widely reported by the press previously and did not appear to be a factor in Hucker's 2010 election to the House of Delegates.  While in the state legislature, Delegate Hucker's record included supporting statewide speed cameras in 2009 and opposing the repeal of speed cameras in 2014.  Hucker is now running for the District 5 council seat which includes Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and Burtonsville.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

House Voted to Reject Speed Camera Repeal, For Workerless Workzone Cameras

While the Maryland state legislature was mulling a "reform in name only" speed camera bill which passed this year (to prevent more significant reforms amid revelations of 70,000 false accusations against motorists in Baltimore), some lawmakers attempted to address the numerous problems with Maryland's speed camera law more directly by introducing a repeal amendment to the floor of the House of Delegates.

The amendment, sponsored by Delegate Schuh, would have repealed the state's speed camera law entirely.  The bill was voted down in the house by 46-87.

The following State Delegates acted against the interests of motorists by voting to KEEP Maryland's corrupt speed cameras.
Speaker Busch Conway Holmes Mitchell Stein
Anderson Cullison Howard Mizeur Stukes
Arora Davis Hubbard Morhaim Summers
Barkley DeBoy Hucker Murphy Swain
Barnes Dumais Ivey Nathan-Pulliam Tarrant
Barve Fraser-Hidalgo Jameson Niemann Turner, F.
Beidle Frick Jones Oaks Turner, V.
Bobo Frush Kramer Pena-Melnyk Valderrama
Bohanan Gaines Lafferty Pendergrass Valentino-Smith
Branch Gilchrist Lee Proctor Vallario
Braveboy Glenn Love Reznik Vaughn
Burns Griffith Luedtke Robinson, B. Waldstreicher
Cane Gutierrez Malone Robinson, S. Walker
Carr Guzzone McHale Rosenberg Washington, A.
Carter Hammen McIntosh Rudolph Washington, M.
Clagett Haynes Miller, A. Simmons Weir
Clippinger Healey Minnick Sophocleus Zucker
Conaway Hixson

The Following State Delegates Voted To REPEAL Speed Cameras:
Afzali Eckardt Jacobs McDonough Schuh
Arentz Elliott James Miller, W. Schulz
Aumann Fisher Kach Myers Serafini
Bates George Kelly, K. Norman Smigiel
Beitzel Glass Kipke O'Donnell Stifler
Boteler Haddaway-Riccio Krebs Olszewski Stocksdale
Bromwell Hogan McComas Otto Szeliga
Cluster Hough McConkey Parrott Vitale
Costa Impallaria McDermott Ready Wood

No vote:
Cardin Kaiser McMillan Wilson
Donoghue Frank Harper Kelly, A.

See the complete vote count here

As we have argued in the past, one of the reasons the bill the so called "reform" bill the legislature ultimately passed was not meaningful was that the SHA's own program was specifically exempt from all of the changes it made, since that program is governed by a different (but similarly worded) statute.  Delegate McConkey sponsored a bill which would have changed this by addressing the most common complaint about the SHA's program: the fact that the so called "workzone" speed cameras can be deployed "regardless of whether workers are present", according to the wording of current state law, meaning that no actual work needs to be taking place.  The amendment would have required that work actually be taking place for SHA speed cameras to be used.  That amendment was rejected by a 48-86 vote.

The following Maryland State Delegates voted to KEEP workerless workzone speed cameras.
Speaker Busch Conway Holmes Minnick Simmons
Anderson Cullison Howard Mitchell Stein
Barkley Davis Hubbard Mizeur Stukes
Barnes DeBoy Impallaria Morhaim Summers
Barve Dumais James Murphy Swain
Beidle Fraser-Hidalgo Jameson Nathan-Pulliam Tarrant
Bobo Frick Jones Niemann Turner, F.
Bohanan Frush Kaiser Oaks Turner, V.
Branch Gaines Kramer Olszewski Valentino-Smith
Braveboy Gilchrist Lafferty Pena-Melnyk Vallario
Bromwell Glenn Lee Pendergrass Vaughn
Burns Griffith Love Proctor Waldstreicher
Cane Guzzone Luedtke Reznik Washington, A.
Carr Hammen Malone Robinson, B. Washington, M.
Carter Haynes McHale Robinson, S. Weir
Clagett Healey McIntosh Rosenberg Wilson
Clippinger Hixson McMillan Rudolph Zucker

The meaningless "reform" measure, which was written in large part by local governments such as Montgomery County which wished to ensure that the bill would not significantly affect them, passed both houses handily.  Those who called for actual reforms were told by lawmakers that "it's better than nothing," and the Vice Chair of the Environmental Matters Committee (Delegate Malone) openly stated in a February hearing that no other speed camera bill would be permitted to pass but his own.  Calls for "audits" of speed camera programs capable of identifying errors of the sorts which happened in Baltimore were responded to with promises that they would consider adding audits to the bill, however this did not occur.

Maryland state lawmakers serve four year terms and are up for re-election this November.

Friday, May 2, 2014

WJLA Documents Cyclists Running Red Lights

WJLA has captured footage of dozens of cyclists running red lights in DC.  The footage included incidents of pedestrians in crosswalks being forced to jump out of the way of oncoming bikes.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Legislature Fails to Pass Meaningful Speed Camera Reform

After revelations of industrial scale false accusations against motorists by Baltimore City's failed speed camera program, problems with calibration of equipment in Greenbelt, Hagerstown, and Salisbury, and complaints about alleged speed camera errors in locations such places as Montgomery County, Morningside, and Wicomico County, there was much talk about how the legislature would "reform" the state's speed camera law.  In the end the state legislature did pass a bill alleged to reform the state's speed camera law, which is now on it's way to the Governor, and this is the least they could do. We mean that quite literally... they couldn't have passed a weaker and less meaningful reform bill if they had tried.

The bill,. House Bill 929, was was written largely based input from local governments such as Montgomery County.  The bill's chief sponsor, Environmental Matters Committee Vice Chair Delegate Malone, openly stated at the beginning of the bill's February 18th hearing that no other speed camera bill but his own that he wanted people testifying to simply say "me too".  In the Motor vehicle's subcommittee meeting that follows, Malone further stated that he didn't think people with complaints about speed camera programs should take those concerns to the legislature, specifically citing that one motorist who had come with a complaint about Morningside's speed camera programs should have simply taken it up with the mayor of the town.  It should be no surprise that the foundation of this bill is that local speed camera programs will all continue to police themselves with no meaningful oversight, and that "business as usual' must continue without interruption.