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!