Sunday, December 28, 2008

Darnestown Maryland Installs Blatant Cash Cow Speed Cameras

The Montgomery County "Safe Speed" program recently announced plans to install several new fixed location speed cameras. Some of these cameras have recently been activated on route 28 in the small town of Darnestown Maryland and have been placed immediately after signs reducing a 40mph speed limit to 30 mph.

The following photos, taken by a concerned Montgomery County resident, show the placement of the cameras with respect to the speed limit signs. Just west of Quince Orchard Road, the speed limit on rt 28 becomes 40mph. Just before entering Darnestown is the first 30mph speed limit sign, with one small "photo enforced" sign. Well under a tenth of a mile later is the new fixed speed camera (circled in image below, click for full sized image).

The two are close enough that both the camera and the sign can be photographed together, although brush along the side of the road might well conceal the cameras until a driver actually reaches them. A photo taken from the eastbound direction shows a 40mph sign just past the camera (circled in this image, click for full sized image).At the western end of Darnestown, the situation is even more obvious. When heading east on rt 28, the speed limit is 50mph, with no speed limit signs for over a mile, until about 2/3 of a mile before the speed camera location, at which point the speed limit becomes 40mph. The camera is placed IMMEDIATELY AFTER the only 30mph sign with a small "photo enforced" sign. The camera itself is partially obscured behind another sign. This picture shows how incredibly close the two were placed.

Viewed from the westbound direction, the 40mph sign can be seen (circled below, click for full sized image).

In neither direction are there any flashing yellows "Your Speed" indicator signs, rumble strips or other traffic calming devices to alert inattentive drivers, which one would expect if safety were the motive and the county wished to be sure drivers had every possible chance to react to the single speed limit sign before entering town. There are also no signs indicating a school zone. Note that these fixed speed cameras are designed to work 24/7, the cameras and signs would be much less visible at night.

The cameras were seen "flashing" several cars in a row, all of which seemed to be driving in what most people would consider a normal, safe manner. Because there is so little space between the signs and the cameras even someone who is fairly diligent about obeying speed limits could easily get "nailed" if they were to try to save gas by coasting down to speed instead of immediately hitting the brakes. However it is unclear whether they are actually issuing citations, as someone was apparently already so angered by the camera placement that they spray painted over the lenses of at least one camera. Speed cameras are frequently targeted by this and other forms of attack almost everywhere they have been used.

Two more Darnestown cameras are being constructed nearby on Germantown road (rt118). The fixed poles are located 0.2 miles east of the intersection with rt28 (where the speed limit is 40mph), and about 0.1 miles south of the first 30mph speed limit sign. North of the new locations the speed limit is 40mph. Worse yet, a driver (perhaps your visiting friend or relative) who knows nothing about speed cameras, coming south from 118 and turning east on rt28 could plausibly hit two cash-cow cameras right after another, then hit both cameras again in the opposite direction on the return trip.

Montgomery County is facing the prospect of a huge budget deficit in 2009, and council president Phil Andrews has proposed using speed cameras to fund various programs which the council had previously hoped to fund with a new ambulance fee. A minor dispute arose from this because the County Executive had already allocated the speed camera funds for his own pet projects. Also, revenues from existing cameras have declined by about 40% in the second half of 2008 as more and more drivers became aware of the locations. Local municipalities have also been looking for their cut, with Chevy Chase Village in particular profiting greatly from the cameras. While speed camera funds are nominally required to be used for public safety, that term is undefined. Chevy Chase Village board members have stated that portions of most items in their operating budget could be funded by the cameras, and have allocated safe speed funds for items such as a new locker room, a new office for the village chief of police, and purchasing a Segway.

When Takoma park joined the county's contract, they allowed the camera contractor, ACS (who receives $16.25 out of every citation) to conduct the traffic surveys which help determine where cameras are placed. It is unclear whether it was ACS or county officials who decided to chose camera location and orientation in Darnestown which minimize driver reaction time and thus create this highly profitable scenario.

Montgomery County is in the process of installing several more new cameras (see locations of planned and existing cameras here). StopBigBrotherMD.org requests that anyone discovering a camera which subjects drivers to the type of unfair enforcement as is being done in Darnestown please contact us. Meanwhile, those drivers who live, work, and pay taxes in Montgomery County should assume they will be subjected to this type of "zero tolerance" photo enforcement. Those who are only visiting should consider spending their money elsewhere.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

AAA Calls for the Removal of Chevy Chase Speed Cameras

A representative of AAA Mid-Atlantic is calling for some of the speed cameras in the Village of Chevy Chase to be removed, saying "AAA supports these cameras as long as they are for safety. But we don't think that these cameras on Connecticut Avenue are doing a lot for safety, however, we do think they are doing a lot for the coffers of Chevy Chase Village."

AAA sometimes advocates drivers rights, but also sells insurance and lobbies for the insurance industry. AAA had previously given its support to the law authorizing Montgomery County's Safe Speed Program. However a rift developed when details of Montgomery County's illegal contract arrangement with ACS were revealed.

According to the Geoff Biddle, village manager for Chevy Chase, the village's speed camera program racked up $1.58 million in revenue during fiscal year 2008, from just two fixed cameras and two mobile cameras that operate in the Village. While legally required to be spent only on public safety, that is poorly defined. The minutes of Chevy Chase Village meetings show board members saying that portions of almost every item in the Village operating budget could be paid with speed camera funds, and show that fund being used for such things as a new locker room and a new Segway. An effort was made by the legislature in 2008 to remove that constraint completely.

Beware of Prank Speed Camera Tickets


The Sentinel has reported that some local teenagers have exploited Montgomery County Speed Cameras for a new prank dubbed the Speed Camera "Pimping" game.

The students duplicate the license plates by printing license plate numbers on glossy photo paper, using fonts that "mimic" those on Maryland license plates. They tape the duplicate plate over the existing plate on the back of their car, purposefully speed past a camera, and then quickly stop and remove the fake plate before they are detected. This easily thwarts the cursory review (if any) which tickets are given. The victim, who is identified solely by license plate numbers, receives a citation in the mail days later.

The students used fonts which looked similar to those on a Maryland license plate available on the internet. In some cases, students have even obtained vehicles from their friends that are similar or identical to the make and model of the car owned by the targeted victim. Potentially a victim might not even realize it was not their car if they normally drive past the same camera. One parent who discovered this commented that "This game is very disturbing, especially since unsuspecting parents will also be victimized through receipt of unwarranted photo speed tickets." and stated that "I hope the public at large will complain loudly enough that local Montgomery County government officials will change their policy of using these cameras for monetary gain," the parent said. "The practice of sending speeding tickets to faceless recipients without any type of verification is unwarranted and an exploitation of our rights."

Montgomery County Council President Phil Andrews was concerned that this could hurt the integrity of the Speed Camera Program. "It will cause potential problems for the Speed Camera Program in terms of the confidence in it."

In Europe, duplicating a plate using this same method (or possibly using a photo of the targeted plate), is referred to as Number Plate Cloning. A black market in counterfeit plates has even developed in some parts of Europe where speed cameras are very widespread. Criminals have been known to use fake or stolen license plates to avoid getting caught long before speed cameras were invented. By Maryland law, the fact that a license plate has been stolen is considered as proof of innocence for a speed camera ticket in court, if the defendant can show that the plate was reported stolen in a timely manner. However no provision of article 21-809 specifically addresses the issue of counterfeit plates as a defense. In the overwhelming majority of Montgomery County speed camera trials so far, only those unequivocal proof of their innocence had their fines completely revoked, with defendants who only have fairly good cases forced to pay $22.50 in court costs in addition to a fine. Montgomery County has reportedly been scheduling about 60 speed camera trials to be heard one after another, in assembly line fashion, by a single judge in a 4-5 period. Defendants are reportedly given about 3 minutes each to prove their innocence. As such, a person who is the victim of cloned plates very well might be forced to pay a fine, plus court costs

A paper duplicate would most likely be detected by a law enforcement officer close up, but probably not by one reviewing a large number of photographs one after another. Driving with a counterfeit or stolen license plate is illegal, and anyone engaging in such a "prank" should be aware that they could face criminal charges if they are spotted by a live police officer who, unlike a speed camera, is capable of independent thought.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Frederick City Officials Seeking Speed Cameras

Local Officials from the City of Frederick, Maryland are asking their county delegation to the General Assembly to seek authorization to install Speed Cameras. At a meeting on Tuesday Dec 9th with Frederick County lawmakers, Frederick City Alderwoman Marcia Hall, Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak, and Alderman David Koontz made the request for speed camera legislation. Studying new ways to raise revenue without raising taxes was apparently also high on the legislators' priority list, hmmm curious.

Given that such meetings are often overly represented by people with more free time on their hands rather than those who spend lots of their time driving to other parts of the state, and who favor additional government intervention rather than those who favor limited government and personal liberty, those residents of Frederick who hold a different view may be underrepresented. I would encourage you to write to representatives in Frederick City or Frederick County and also to your state representatives that you disagree with your local officials on this matter. A sample letter can be found HERE. The next General Assembly starts on January 14th 2009.

Meanwhile, Governor O'Malley recently restated his support for statewide speed camera legislation, similar to the bills which came within a hair's breadth of passing in 2008.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

DC Gets New Speed Cameras for Christmas

Washington DC has reportedly just deployed 11 new speed camera sites at these locations:

800 block of Eastern Avenue, NE
5500 block of East Capitol St., NE
2800 block of New York Avenue, NE
5500 block of East Capitol Street, SE
1900 block of Southern Avenue, SE
Southeast Southwest Freeway @ 9th Street entrance ramp SE
Southeast Southwest Freeway @ 8th Street SE
3700 block of Southern Avenue SE
Suitland Parkway nw/b before Firth Sterling Ave SE
2900 block of Military Road NW
5300 block of 14th Street NW

These are in addition to the 50 speed and red light cameras the city had already maintained. The new locations are primarily located on major roadways which Maryland residents use to enter the city. These locations will be enforced by mobile cameras (vans), which can be easily moved or concealed.

The new cameras will issue only warnings for the first 30 days to make sure local residents are aware of them, but by December 26th will begin issuing real citations. The camera at 2800 New York Ave(a major 6-lane freeway) is apparently right next to the warehouse and main office of the Washington Times, a paper which has been critical of DC's speed and red light camera programs in the past.

In other news of interest to those visiting DC, the District's 16,000 parking meters have received a record 100,000 complaints so far in 2008. The most frequent complaints include jammed meters and those that didn't register deposited money. DC's parking meters are maintained by ACS State and Local Solutions, who is also the contractor for Montgomery County's speed cameras.

Monday, November 24, 2008

MoCo Speed Camera Cited Wrong Driver


A woman from Edgewater succeeded in having her speed camera citation thrown out in court after she proved that it was in fact not her car shown in the citation. Coleen Hanna was cited on August 6th for speeding in her BMW with tag number GZS 764 by a Montgomery County speed camera. The problem is that Ms Hanna doesn't own a BMW, she drives a Ford Focus. Hanna realized the 7 in the photo was not clear. She took it on her self to contact the MVA who determined that there was a BMD with tag number GZS 364.

She sent a letter explaining her situation, along with the documentation, hoping to avoid hoping to avoid having to travel to go to court and take a full day off of work, pay for gas to drive all the way to Silver Spring and pay for parking to challenge the $40 ticket. However her letter was ignored and she instead received a notice for a court hearing.

Unlike most drivers who would have considered it too much trouble to go to court, but Hanna thought "I would be saying I was in Montgomery County speeding that day, and that would be a lie." ** GOOD FOR YOU! **

After she presented her evidence and proved her innocence (um hello?!? who has the burden of proof?), the judge threw the ticket out.

Maurice R. Nelson, director of automatic traffic enforcement for the Safe Speed Program, said Hanna's ticket breezed through four separate "fail-safe" points where the error should have been caught. He claimed that the ticket was issued as a result of human error, not a flaw in the speed camera technology. Apparently the fact that a camera took a 3 and made it look like a 7 is human error. Whatever.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Maryland Counties Begin Push for 2009 Speed Camera Legislation


The Delegations to the Maryland General Assembly from Howard County and Prince George's County are both working on legislation to expand the use of speed cameras. These bills are planned to be introduced into the 2009 General Assembly session which begins January 14th and will end on April 13th.

Howard County: Senator James Robey (D, HCo) has proposed a bill to introduce speed cameras on 45mph roads in Howard County (Ho.Co. 06-09). The system currently in place in Montgomery County is limited to 35mph zones, and while nominally limited to "school and residential zones", in fact has already been applied to 6-lane divided roadways. Streets with 45mph limits will include major transportation arteries. Public hearings on this and other 2009 legislation from Howard County are scheduled for Tuesday November 25, 2008.

Prince George's County: The PG county delegation's bill is labeled PG 309-09. The first draft appears to allow a system almost identical to the current Montgomery County System. The next public hearing for the Prince George's Delegation is November 19, 2008.

Prince Georges County unsuccessfully pushed for speed cameras in 2008. Part of the motive may be that PG county residents feel they are being unfairly targeted by Cameras in Montgomery County. Whereas Montgomery County residents for the most part know where the cameras in their own location are and slow down immediately before the cameras, and will typically form a long angry line behind anyone who is actually driving below the speed limit for the entire length of even a marked photo enforcement zone (try it sometime), residents of neighboring counties are less likely to be familiar with the camera locations and signs. An article in the Gazette stated that a spokesperson from AAA “has noted that the county posts the cameras at well-traveled county borders and in residential zones where speed limits are considered artificially low.” That article quoted Councilman Thomas Dernoga (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel, whose district borders Montgomery County, as saying "On Powder Mill Road, they put the cameras to catch Prince George's County citizens."

Montgomery County: The Montgomery County Delegation is proposing two pieces of photo enforcement legislation. Bill MC 907-09 (which is not about speed cameras), proposed by Senator Richard Madaleno(D), and Delegates Al Carr(D) and Jeff Waldstreicher(D), would allow the use of photo enforcement on railroad crossings. The use of these devices was actually approved for Prince George's County in 2007, although it is unclear where or how many are actually in use. The bill sets the maximum fine for such violations at $100. As with speed cameras, these citations are considered a civil violation, with no points issued, and with court hearings decided on the standard of preponderance of evidence rather than beyond reasonable doubt. These devices have also been used in Arizona, where an activist group did this video about them.

The second bill, labeled MC912-09, aka the "Speed Camera Fairness Act", was proposed by Delegate Saqib Ali(D) and Senator Mike Lenett(D). It is intended to address Montgomery County's contract which is in violation of article 21-809(j) because it pays a per-ticket fee to Texas based ACS State and Local Solutions (previously known as Lockheed Martin IMS). The bill would change the language of the law from "If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of Montgomery County, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid"
to instead read " If the contractor provides services or equipment relating to: (1) The installation, operation, maintenance, or repair of a speed monitoring system (2) The issuance or processing of a citation for a violation of this subtitle recorded by a speed monitoring system; or (3) The collection or enforcement of a penalty for a violation of this subtitle recorded by a speed monitoring system"
The legislators (who both voted in favor of statewide speed cameras in 2008) view this as necessary to remove a political impediment to authorizing more speed cameras and to provide political cover for Montgomery County officials while still allowing the current contract to run its course to the end of FY09. StopBigBrotherMD agrees that eliminating per-ticket payments to contractors is necessary, and that clarifying the language of the law may help limit further abuse. But we do not believe this means the system will then be “fair", since there are many other issues. Moreover, the current law already covers this contract situation, Montgomery County IS in violation of that law, and rather than holding the accountable, state and local officials are instead being deception and providing political cover. That makes it questionable whether future restrictions will be obeyed, no matter how they are worded, given that local jurisdictions know they will suffer no penalty for not complying.

While MoCo officials and delegates have stated that the per-ticket arrangement took them by surprise, it is also clear that some members of the Montgomery County delegation were aware of the per ticket payments because letters were exchanged with the MD Attorney General’s Office about the matter. There were also inconsistencies (noted in an earlier post) between what the OAG letter says the county told the AG about ACS’s role in the program, and what the county is currently stating. StopBigBrotherMD has obtained emails sent by a concerned constituent to several Montgomery County delegates about the per-ticket payments prior to their 2008 votes in favor of statewide speed cameras.

On Delegate Ali’s blog, he states that the contract only violates the spirit, not the letter, of the law. This is because while the wording of the existing law states “if a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of Montgomery County, the contractor's fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid”, Montgomery County has stated that they, not ACS “operate” the cameras. His blog entry goes on to state that “Montgomery County Government is paying the contractors -- Affiliated Computer Services Inc (ACS) -- who own, maintain and run the speed cameras a $16.25 fee per ticket”. (Readers, feel free to pick up a dictionary or thesaurus of your choice and see that the words “run” and “operate” are synonyms. In this one, the word “operate” appears 7 times in the definition for the word “run”, with most relevant entry being: “to work, operate, or drive").

The trustworthiness of local officials may be compromised because there is a second conflict of interest aside from that of the contractor: local governments have a financial interest and wish to use the revenue to buy the votes of special interest groups. This legislation does not address that conflict of interest, or repair the damage which using law enforcement to collect revenue for the government does to our justice system. The fact that contract arrangements signed so far appear to be written to require the contractors to guarantee a profit for the local government, makes it clear that this is a major factor. The state conducted extensive fiscal impact statements about the various 2008 bills, to determine what the expected revenues would be.

Public hearings on the Montgomery County sponsored bills will occur on December 11th at 7pm (you must sign up in advance to attend).

Bills which would have authorized speed cameras in ALL Maryland Counties, had they not failed to pass at the last minute, were introduced in the 2008 session at the request of Governor O’Malley. O'Malley has pledged to reintroduce this legislation in 2009, however as of this writing a draft of the 2009 bills are not yet available.

StopBigBrotherMD.org has secured the first drafts of the 2009 bills mentioned in this posting and will be tracking the progress of and amendments to these bills -- as well as which legislators are voting for this legislation. Concerned citizens should get involved and contact their state representatives.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The District of Columbia : A Constitution Free Zone for Commuters


Washington DC has pioneered the use of photo enforcement in the US, with a red light camera program started in 1999 and a speed camera program started in 2001, which are now operating at over 50 locations. (See Locations of DC Speed Cameras). Could the comparatively modest photo enforcement systems currently in Maryland evolve into something like the DC system, but on a statewide scale?

The profit motive to try to do the same in Maryland is definitely there, both for the government and for the contractor. TheNewspaper.com reports that "Since 1999, Washington, D.C. red light and speed cameras have issued 3,296,175 tickets worth $250 million (as of 5/31/08)." In 2006, 64% of that revenue was reported to have come from Maryland residents, raising the question as to whether commuter routes used by MD residents who work in the district were being deliberately targeted.

AAA Mid-Atlantic became particularly concerned about DC's camera enforcement after it discovered a letter that the DC Mayor sent to the Council Chair in 2005 asking the council to continue the city's automated traffic enforcement program. The letter said there was an "urgent need" to continue the program to collect revenue for the District." and made no mention of safety. An AAA spokesman said "It is a tremendous cash cow." AAA had previously referred to DC speed cameras as "an ever-increasing gantlet" for D.C. motorists.

Unlike Maryland speed cameras, in DC cameras can be used legally on roads with any speed limit (even 55mph freeways), and are not required to give drivers any "margin for error" above the speed limit before issuing citations. The ability to appeal is also extremely restricted, as is your constitutional right to face your accuser. The deterrent value of mailing photo tickets is particularly suspect in DC, since so many visitors are from other parts of the county and would not receive citations until they have returned home.

Among other creative programs, DC recently added parking enforcement cameras to the city's 20 street sweepers, which photograph illegally parked cars with $30 citations sent by mail to the owners. Many DC streets which allow legal parking at most times require motorists to move their cars for a 2 hour period each week. A spokesman for AA Mid-Atlantic states "I think it's hard to say to people that revenue is not one of their ulterior motives." and worried that the program will place tourists and motorists who live outside the District at a disadvantage because they don't know about automated enforcement. Remember folks, photo enforcement is about safety, although projections that this program would bring in an additional $2.67 million per year in revenue didn't hurt either. AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend suggested that “the greatest proficiency D.C. has is ticketing folks. It does it better than any city I know.”

Were automated traffic enforcement the end of it, one might reasonably say that an exceptionally good driver who diligently obeys all traffic laws you could still travel to DC without undue harassment. Unfortunately that is no longer the case. DC police now set up random checkpoints for motorists in parts of the city to combat crime. Police are allowed to stop any car with no probable cause, and ask the driver to explain their reason for being there. Those unable or unwilling to provide a valid reason can be told they may not pass. (Your papers please?) Metro riders are no longer immune. Now Metro (which also operates in suburban Maryland and northern Virginia) is also conducting random searches of passengers bags, without probable cause or warrants . Apparently the 4th Amendment is just too outdated and inconvenient for our nation's capital and its suburbs.

Maryland has a tendency to follow in DC's footsteps. Will this trend continue? Given the direction they are going let's hope not!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Takoma Park to Get Speed Cameras with Ticket Quotas

At the September 22, 2008 Takoma Park city council meeting, the City of Takoma Park voted to authorize a speed camera contract - without discussion - under the same per-ticket payment terms as Montgomery County.

The resolution appears to include a slightly modification to the Montgomery County contract payment terms with ACS State and Local Solutions (the greater of $3000 per van or $16.25 per citation) stating that:

"If the total of the City’s paid citation revenues are less than $2,999.00 per month per mobile unit for two consecutive months or for any two months in a six-month period during the term of the agreement or any renewals, the contract provides for a renegotiation of the per citation rate and/or the monthly minimum compensation payable to the contractor. If the City, in its sole discretion, is not satisfied with the results of such renegotiation or with the revenues derived from the photo speed enforcement program or the City determines that photo speed enforcement is no longer an appropriate enforcement mechanism for the City, then the City may terminate this Agreement for convenience pursuant to paragraph 11."

This appears to have the effect of establishing a minimum ticket quota for the contractor to ensure that the city does not lose money. Given how profitable the cameras have been in other areas like Chevy Chase, its unlikely they'd ever fall below the $2999 per camera van quota, but it sort of ironic that they might penalize the contractor if the cameras miraculously stopped all speeding in the city.

Ticket quotas by law enforcement officers, both formal and informal, are banned by Maryland Statute §3–504.

Montgomery County has vigorously defended the legality of its per-ticket-payment contract with ACS on the grounds that, even though ACS performs the day to day maintenance of the hardware and processing of violations, it is the county who "operates" the speed cameras because the county tells ACS where to put the cameras (although their rationale has changed from time to time). The referenced Takoma Park agenda documentation indicates that traffic surveys, which are required to determine which locations are most in need of speed reductions "were conducted in various locations in the City during the months of August and October 2007 by ACS State and Local Solutions."

A class action lawsuit has been filed over the matter of the per-ticket payments. In late August a Montgomery County court gave the plaintiffs in that case 45 days to re-file their complaint with Montgomery County (who holds the contract) rather than the cities of Rockville and Chevy Chase as the defendant. The new filing was made on October 6 and the case against Montgomery County is now advancing.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Montgomery County Faces Lawuit Over Cameras

Montgomery County is facing a $20 million lawsuit over its contract with ACS, which pays the contractor a per-ticket fee despite a provision of the 2006 law forbidding fees contingent on the number of tickets issued or paid.

The Gazette article references a letter from the attorney general's office which county officials say supports their position that the contract is legal. The letter in question, addressed to a Delegate from Montgomery County and dated March 5th, 2008, was signed by the Council to the General Assembly Dan Friedman, (not Attorney General Gansler, as the article states). 

Here are some excerpts from that letter:
"On review, of the facts as I understand them, I concur with Montgomery County’s position that it, not the contractor, “operates” the speed monitoring system and that, therefore, the prohibition against contingent-based pricing does not apply. Of course if the facts are different than I have understood them, a reviewing court may well come to the opposite conclusion."
The letter goes on to reference MD. TRANS. CODE ANN., §21-809 which specifies the following:
(5) “Speed monitoring system” means a device with one or more motor vehicle sensors producing recorded images of motor vehicles traveling at speeds at least 10 miles per hour above the posted speed limit.
(6) “Speed monitoring system operator” means an individual who operates a speed monitoring system.
The letter then states : "Thus, it is the person who operates the cameras who “operates” the “system” in this statutory scheme. I understand from my conversations with"[name deleted]" that while the contractor supplies the cameras and vehicles, the equipment is physically operated by county employees"
The Gazette article quotes a spokesman for the county executive as saying: "Basically, they [ACS] take the pictures, but we're the ones who figure out who gets ticketed." This seems to conflict with the way the county described ACS's role in the OAG letter.
The Gazette article notes that the cameras "generated net revenue of about $6 million, which must be used for public safety and pedestrian programs." In fact, the proposed 2008 senate bill which would have authorized statewide speed cameras would have eliminated the requirement that funds be spent on public safety. The 2008 legislation would also have modified the definition of a "Speed monitoring system operator" to be "a representative of an agency or contractor that operates..." It is unclear to this writer who proposed those changes, and whether it was intended to grandfather in this contract arrangement, or negated the ability of the accused to request the physical operator testify in court. What is clear is that this legislation was voted on AFTER the referenced letter from the attorney general's office was sent to members of the Montgomery County delegation to the general assembly.
The use of hedging language would not be expected in a formal OAG opinion which went through proper review, and it would be expected to appear in the official list of OAG opinions and advice letters rather than just quietly passed to the county and given to reporters and citizens who ask too many questions. But if it had gone through that review, it would made this issue publicly known at a time when the governor was attempting to push statewide speed cameras through the General Assembly.
So did Montgomery County ask the OAG for a "get out of jail free card" they could use until their plan to change the law to allow statewide speed cameras with per-ticket bounties succeeded?
The Gazette article states that the county is renegotiating its contract. However the city of Gaithersburg in August 2008 just voted to extend its rider on the 2008 contract "through FY 2009". Residents of Gaithersburg, as well as Rockville and Chevy Chase, might wish to ask their local representatives why they not only previously approved, but periodically re-approve participation in this contract, 5 months after the legal and ethical questions about this contract were made public.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Montgomery County Speed Camera Mistakenly Accuses Innocent Drivers of 100mph Rampage

The Washington Post reported that a couple from Silver Spring driving a Toyota Echo economy car were ticketed by a Montgomery County "Safe Speed" camera for traveling 100 Miles per hour in a 30 mph zone, on a windy uphill road during rush hour. No they were not in fact driving anywhere near 100 mph. The couple had already paid the citation because a $40 ticket "wasn't worth the hassle of contesting the ticket in district court." The Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit in Rockville only responded to several letters they sent after the Washington Post and WTTG television got involved.

County Police eventually admitted the mistake and have said the $40 fine which the accused had already paid would be refunded. The county has also said it will revise it's procedures to ensure that similar problems to not occur again. It is unclear whether those new procedures would make it more or less likely for the county to admit a similar error if the speed reading were off by 11-12 mph rather than 70mph.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Cruiser Top Cameras Scan License Plates of All Passing Drivers

First there were Red Light Cameras. Then came speed cameras. Now the Washington Post has reported on the use of new Cruiser-Topped-Cameras which scan the license plate of every passing car looking for stolen vehicles, but also for suspended tags. Vehicle registrations can be suspended due to failure to pay traffic or parking tickets, failure to pass emission inspections, failure to pay speed camera tickets or simply an owner's forgetfulness. Drivers whose registration is suspended can be pulled over on the spot and issued a $140 fine.

The ACLU was unhappy upon hearing this. "What it illustrates is how the technologies for surveillance have developed at the speed of light, but the law that controls how those technologies can be used is still back in the Stone Age," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program. "We've got to develop some rules of the road here to protect our privacy."

There is currently no law governing this system, because license plates are out in the open and not considered private. "This is one of the situations where people think surely, there's a law that governs this," Steinhardt said. "Well, there aren't laws."

Such technologies are likely to become much more common. "It's a glimpse into the future," said Steinhardt. "It won't take long before these things become pervasive, and the one thing we know about technology is it gets more advanced and cheaper as time goes on."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is Montgomery County Misusing Driving Records?

Montgomery County has been accused of looking into the traffic records of a critic of the speed camera program. In an alleged incident reported by TheNewsPaper, the county was reported to have responded to an email by a county resident with a letter which included specific details about that driver's speed camera violations, and the fact that he was a motorcyclist, even though none of those details were included in that letter. Ironically, both the original letter and the county's response referred to privacy concerns.

Should this raise concerns that speed cameras and the data regarding tickets might be used for purposes other than the one intended? One concern would be if this data might be released to insurance companies, even though the law specifically forbids speed camera tickets from being used to set insurance rates. Another concern was raised by a previous incident, reported by the Washington Post, where details of specific incidents were released to the media, including the names of police officers who had been issued speed camera tickets and an allegation that one of the officers had made an obscene gesture in one of the photos.

So does Montgomery County snoop on speed camera opponents? What, me worry?-)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Chevy Chase Speed Cameras Raking in Huge Profits

The Montgomery County Gazette Reported that the speed cameras in Chevy Chase Village are bringing in $250,000 per month in ticket revenues ($3million per year). The entire 2009 operating budget for Chevy Chase Village (a municipality of 2000 residents) is currently $4.5 million. This leaves the village with an unusual problem of deciding how to spend this money, given that the law requires that this money only be spent on public safety improvements.

Not to worry, Montgomery County has given them the solution... reinterpret the law to allow them to do whatever they want! Montgomery County has stated that he does not believe that the county's current per-ticket payment arrangement with ACS violates the letter or the spirit of the law... when the law states that a contractor who operates a speed camera system may not be paid a fee contingent on the number of tickets. The county executive now claims that the word "operate" means telling the contractor what to do and where to set up the cameras, not the functions performed by ACS including installation, maintenance, and processing violations. Note that the county executive had PREVIOUSLY claimed that the county was paying ACS a FLAT FEE --- however that was before several local media outlets reported on the per-ticket arrangement.

**SO** the solution to Chevy Chase's problem is to reinterpret the words "Public Safety Improvement" and they can spend it however they like. They can also increase revenues by reinterpreting other words such as "fair hearing", "properly posted speed limits", "calibration checks", "residential zone" etc to let them do whatever the heck they want, regardless of any assurances the public has been given about the fairness of this system.

Chevy Chase is apparently still debating what "Public Safety Improvements" speed camera money may be used for. The Feb 11, 2008 Minutes of the Chevy Chase Village Board of Managers suggested such uses as: "Brookville Road, putting in new streetlights; the Connecticut Avenue projects, beautification improvements, the new sidewalks."

ACS Wine and Dine State Legislatures over Speed Camera Bills

Photo enforcement lobbyists wined and dined key Maryland state lawmakers before a vote to expand the state's speed camera system earlier this year. The Annapolis lobby firm Alexander and Cleaver arranged a $3,700 event to wine and dine the House and Senate committee members responsible for delivering the legislation to the floor of each chamber. The Washington Post reported on the event after analyzing the ethics disclosure reports for each of the state's 188 lawmakers.

This is not the first lobbying effort by ACS on photo enforcement laws. Between 2000 and 2004, ACS spent nearly $500,000 on the lobbyists responsible for handing the company the no-bid contract it once had to operate red light cameras in Washington, DC.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Montgomery County Speed-Camera Contract Pays Per Citation, Flouts the Law

The Washington Times broke a story which show that the Montgomery County contract with ACS(Affiliated Computer Services) is in fact paying the contractor a per-citation fee. This is in apparent disregard for Transportation Article 21-809(j) of the Maryland Code, "If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of Montgomery County, the contractor's fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid."

According to the article, county officials declined a request from The Washington Times to obtain a copy of the contract with ACS (contract #7474000045-AA). However documents regarding the rider contracts for Gaithersburg and Rockville are online, make it clear that ACS is paid on a per-citation basis.

According to the article, a representative of the county has maintained that "the police department operates the cameras because officers determine whether a driver caught on camera violated the law and where the cameras should be placed."

However, ACS's own press release defines their role as such"
Under the contract, ACS processes violations; generates and mails notices; schedules adjudication and appeals appointments; provides document imaging and correspondence management; provides walk-in customer service; maintains camera equipment; and provides pay-by-web, pay-by-phone, and integrated voice response systems."

This position is in apparent violation of the intent of the law. The Washington Times article contains quotes from several state legislators which makes that clear. The no-per-ticket payment clause was part of the sales pitch for speed cameras. State Senator Brian Frosh from Montgomery County was quoted by the Times as saying "It was incorporated into the legislation to ensure a profit motive didn't drive the speed-camera enforcement" and "You're not supposed to have a bounty that was paid to the contractor."


The intent of the law to the legislators voting on the law seems clear. State delegates Dana M. Stein(D, Baltimore County) and Pam Beidle (D, Anne Arundal County) both had language on their web sites where they supported new speed camera legislation containing the same language and touted the no-per-ticket clauses, saying "Finally, the bill prohibits a speed camera contractor’s fee from being linked to the number of citations issued by the device or paid by speeders.".
Delegate Saqib Ali (D, Montgomery County) was quoted in a TV News report as saying "They should make sure that the amount paid to ACS is completely divorced from tickets issued or tickets paid."

In fact, the Montgomery County Council was also apparently clear on this point in 2006, prior to the bidding process for the contract. On page 132, lines 15-16 of these council minutes council member Phil Andrews stated "contractors are not paid based on the number of citations, that's built-in". Somehow, however, County executive Leggett was seemingly unaware of this situation right before the Times Story, stating "Under the contract, we pay a flat fee". This of course turned out not to be accurate.

A follow-up article in the Montgomery County Sentinel showed that AAA Mid Atlantic was not too pleased with this per-ticket arrangement, as they had given their support to the 2006 law under condition that there would be no such deals. (AAA sometimes lobbies on behalf of motorists, however they are also in the business of selling auto insurance.)

In 2008 the Maryland state house and senate voted on bills which would have allowed speed cameras to be used throughout Maryland. Presumably if Montgomery County were given a pass on this, so would any other jurisdictions, and perhaps also on any other inconvenient provisions of the law which are meant to protect the rights of the public.

Note that the 2008 bills also redefined the term "operator"... if this bill had been passed you would no longer have the right to face the actual operator who knows how the device was actually operated if you requested it, but merely a "representative" who knows how it is *supposed* to be operated. One version of the bills would have removed the requirement that funds from the cameras be spent on public safety improvement... a major selling point to the public of the original Montgomery County program.

Despite vigorously defending the legality of the contract, in May 2008 the county executive is quoted as saying "The contract is currently up for renewal and MCPD is investigating an alternative way of paying the vendor to eliminate even the appearance of a problem with the payment system." However, as of August 2008, the County was apparently still planning to continue this arrangement, as the City Of Gaithersburg approved a measure extending its participation in contract 7474000045-AA through all of fiscal year 2009.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

2008 Statewide Speed Camera Legislation

The 2008 Maryland General adjourned Monday 4/4/2008 without passing any of the speed camera bills. But it was VERY close. The majority had arrived at a compromise bill, but opponents threatened to filibuster and the clock ran out on the General Assembly session.

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The Maryland House of Delegates had voted to approve a plan to install speed cameras statewide by a 90 to 45 vote.

Here are details on Senate Bill 269 and House Bill 364.

Both bills allow speed cameras on almost all roads of up to 45MPH. The bills both also allow their use in "highway work zones", which could include almost any road in the state. The previous law permitting their use only in Montgomery County was limited to 35mph.

Here are some of the changes that were included in one or more versions of this legislation:
  • Allow statewide use of speed cameras
  • Allow speed cameras on most 55mph freeways in Prince Georges County.
  • Allow speed cameras in temporary "highway work zones" (an amendment which would have required that there be at least one worker present was rejected).
  • Change the max speed limit where speed cameras can be used in "residential areas" to 45 mph (including existing cameras in Montgomery County"
  • (Senate Version) Eliminating the requirement that camera revenues be spent on public safety
  • (House Version) increase the maximum fine to $75.
  • Change the definition of "speed camera operator" to "a representative", meaning that the accused would no longer have the right to request that the physical camera operator appear in court.
  • Under the new law, counties are not required to report back on the success or failure of their programs until 2012.
Here are the Senators who voted for this bill:
MILLER FROSH KELLEY MUSE ROSAPEPE
BROCHIN GARAGIOLA KLAUSMEIER PETERS STONE
CONWAY GLADDEN LENETT PINSKY
CURRIE HARRINGTON MADALENO PUGH
EXUM JONES MCFADDEN RASKIN
FOREHAND KASEMEYER MIDDLETON ROBEY

Here are the Delegates who voted for the house bill:

Speaker Busch Clagett_V. Haynes Levy Rice
Ali Conaway Healey Love Rosenberg
Anderson Conway Hecht Malone Ross
Barkley DeBoy Heller Manno Rudolph
Barnes Donoghue Hixson Mathias Shewell
Barve Doory Holmes McHale Simmons
Beidle Dumais Howard McIntosh Stein
Benson Elliott Hubbard Mizeur Stukes
Bobo Feldman Hucker Montgomery Tarrant
Bohanan Frick Ivey Morhaim Taylor
Branch Frush Jones Murphy Turner_F.
Braveboy Gaines Kirk Nathan-Pulliam Turner_V.
Bronrott Gilchrist Kramer Niemann Valderrama
Burns Glenn Krysiak Pena-Melnyk Vaughn
Cane Griffith Kullen Pendergrass Waldstreicher
Carr Guzzone Lafferty Proctor Walker
Carter Hammen Lee Ramirez Weldon
Clagett_G. Harrison Levi Reznik

Governor O'Malley sponsored this legislation.

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This is not the end of the road for statewide speed cameras by a long shot. Governor O'Malley and many of the delegates have pledged to bring this before the legislature again in the 2009 session which will run from January 14th through April 13th. Governor O'Malley has the power to call a special session, so these bills could be taken up again this year. This legislature also has 2 more sessions before they are up for re-election in 2010.

Here's what you can do!

Stay Informed!
Come back to this site for updates. Please Email Me if you have any information about these cameras to share or if you wish to help prepare for the next battle.