Thursday, September 30, 2010

Forest Heights Fails to Provide Court Hearings, Threatens Drivers

Some citizens receiving speed camera citations from the town of Forest Heights have requested court hearings but were instead hit with late penalties and were threatened that their registrations would be suspended if they did not pay.

The Washington Times has reported speaking with individuals who tried to challenge their citations in court, believing the recorded speeds to be inaccurate.  While it may or may not be possible to prove weeks after the fact whether this is the case, these drivers were not given the chance.  "Though the drivers promptly followed the instructions on the citation, Forest Heights refused to set a court date. Instead, the private company sent threatening letters on the town's letterhead stating, "You failed to pay your fine by the due date specified on your original citation. As a result, you owe additional fees." reports the Times.

The letters these drivers received stated September 30 (today) as the date their registrations would be suspended.  Driving with a suspended registration is of course illegal and carries additional hefty fines (even if the registration was flagged inappropriately).  The state of Maryland has the means to identify such flagged registrations (using ALPR systems) even if the drivers are obeying other traffic laws.  So these drivers are now being put in the position of breaking the law and receiving even heavier penalties, or being unable to drive their cars and putting their jobs on the line, or simply giving up on receiving hearings by paying these fines plus late fees.  That's called "Blackmail". has also been contacted by citizens who either requested hearings from Forest Heights and not received them.  Some drivers contacted Forest Heights officials about the matter and were told they would receive hearings, but still have not as of the suspension date on the notices they received.  Another driver claimed to have actually paid the fine by the due date but received a late notice anyways with additional late fees added on.

In a recent story regarding possible accuracy problems with speed cameras in Forest Heights, ABC News 2 interviewed one driver receiving such a questionable citation who also was unable to receive a court hearing, further confirming this situation.  The stated reason that court dates were not provided was that the District Courts are backed up.  Whether this is the case or not is really no excuse.  The US and Maryland constitutions guarantee that we, the people, will not be punished for a crime without first receiving due process.  This situation documents that in some cases the courts cannot physically handle cases as fast as automated cameras can shotgun blast out citations, and that this is likely to be a problem just when it is most important: when widespread problems may have occurred.  But whether overloaded courts is the cause, or whether it is a matter of callous disregard for our rights, the town still an obligation to ensure drivers are not penalized before they receive a FAIR hearing.

It is unknown how many drivers are currently in this situation.  The Town of Forest Heights FY11 Budget projected camera revenues of $2.8million dollars, which would require approximately 70,000 paid citations to achieve.  Put into context, Forest Height has about 3000 residents, so that would be about 23 citations sent per resident. This is 49% of the town's total $5.8million budget.  The town's FY10 budget, which did not include speed camera fines, was a mere $1.7million according to a July 2009 town newsletter.  According to state law the town is supposed to keep no more than 10% of their budget in speed camera revenues after all expenses.  However because the total used to compute that 10% includes the camera revenue itself, the $580,000 in net revenue (after in addition to $1.184million in 'expenses') is equal to 30% of their FY10 budget.  Should they reach their revenue goal the remaining $1.1million would go to the state's general fund.  The state of needed to sign off on the permit for the camera located on State Highway 210 since it is maintained by the SHA.

In the interest of protecting the due process of Maryland drivers, we call upon the city of Forest Heights to IMMEDIATELY void the citations of any driver who has requested a hearing and not received one.  And we call on the residents of Maryland not to sit back and wait for their own rights to be stripped away: Take Action Now.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cheverly Residents Confronted Council on Camera Accuracy

We previously reported that the town of Cheverly had apparently received complaints about the accuracy of its new speed cameras and felt compelled to publish a response to those complaints.  It turns out some town residents were sufficiently unconvinced by the town's response that they contronted the town council about it in an August 12th town meeting.

One resident's comments were recorded as follows:
"regarding a number of citizens who received tickets, but did not believe that they were going that fast.  Asking to look at the results of the data of the tickets issued to see if the four of us that got tickets did not speed excessively.  We have one elderly person who said she never ever speeds in Cheverly."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Maryland's Right to Petition for Referendum in Danger

A recent decision by the Montgomery County Board of Elections to reject two petitions, one in opposition to a new Ambulance Fee and one on Term Limits, could severely curtail the right of Maryland voters to petition for referendum on any issue ever.

The Board of Elections, in response to a court ruling on a prior referendum effort, adopted the new rules on how the signatures on the petition must be written.  The signatures must exactly match the person's written name, which must exactly match their name as it appears on the election rolls, including notably middle names or initials.  Signatures could also be tossed if some letters in the name were illegible. The problem: that's not how most people sign their names.  Anyone who's normal legal signature which they use on checks, contracts, marriage licenses, or drivers licenses would be thrown out if they sign it 'John Smith' rather than 'John T Smith', or if like many people their legal signature consists of a 'decorative scribble' rather than neat legible cursive. This is the case with a huge percentage of the population.  Because of this the majority of signatures from legitimate registered voters were thrown out on both petitions.

Under these rules, any future petition whether it is on speed cameras, or taxes, or any other issue, will likely be shot down regardless of how many signatures are collected.  Any local government which WANTS to reject a petition need only claim that large numbers of signatures are 'illegible'.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Redspeed Targets Small Towns As Speed Camera Customers

The smallest and newest player in Maryland's speed camera business is targeting small towns with its speed camera marketing strategy.  Redspeed conducted a traffic survey in the town of Rising Sun and estimated that at one camera site they could have brought in $20,000 worth of revenue had a camera been placed there.  The data was presented at a September 14 town meeting.

Under the deal offered by Redspeed the company would keep $15 of every citation and the town would keep the remaining $25.  The town would first need to pass an ordinance authorizing the cameras and another approving the contract.  Rising Sun Residents who have objections to being stripped of their due process rights should consult the Town Commissioners or attend the next public meeting.

A similar sales pitch is being made to the Frederick County town of Thurmont.  Redspeed's presentation was made at a September 7th town meeting.  Thurmont would also need to draft and pass local legislation.  Note that this can happen with very little notice, and in many small towns only an extremely small minority of residents pay any attention to the goings on in town meetings!  Those with concerns about being presumed guilty by a machine should contact the town's elected officials or attend the next town meeting.
We previously reported that Princess Anne is seriously considering adding Redspeed cameras as well.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Frederick City Discusses Speed Camera Money

The City of Frederick has just approved a contract with ACS State and Local Solutions to provide speed cameras.  The contract was approved in a public hearing. 

The council held an hour long discussion about the speed camera contract (which the editor of this website was able to watch in its entirely since I'm home sick this weekend, but which you can watch for yourself  HERE,Time index 02:01:00  -  03:03:00 ). 
Frederick City Council Discusses Camera Money
Short story: that discussion was almost entirely about MONEY.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Plot Thickens With Rhode Island Avenue Speed Limits

Earlier we reported that the speed limit where two cameras on US Route 1 (Rhode Island Avenue) in Brentwood and Mount Rainer have been added appears to have recently been lowered from 35mph to 25mph.  We filed a Maryland Public Information Act Request with the Maryland State Highway Administration to try to get some answers.  After just over a month we finally received some of the information we were looking for, answering some questions and raising several new ones.

In their first response the SHA provided a list of written answers along with Mount Rainier's permit for speed camera use.  When we informed them that some of the data we requested was not complete they then produced a copy of Brentwood's speed camera permit application.

In their first response the SHA stated that the speed limit sign "During the SHA's review of this area for school zone signing it was found that a 35mph speed limit sign was located on northbound US 1 near 37th street.  This sign was incorrectly placed and was replaced with a 25mph sign in April, 2010, when the school zone signing was installed."  We responded by asking about the sign change in the southbound direction, and also pointed out that our request had include the both directions as well as work orders to change the signs. 

Felicia Murphy from the SHA responded that "The speed limit in Mt. Rainier on US 1 has been 25 mph for many years." and repeated that "we noticed the 35 mph speed limit sign which was incorrect and had it corrected."  They were unable to produce the actual work orders for changing the signs.  However we noted that page two of the Brentwood permit request states: "The posted speed limit of this section of US 1 has recently been reduced to 25mph, extending an existing 25MPH zone that is present to the south.".  We pointed this out to the SHA in another email along with the photos below showing the location in the southbound lane where there is now a 25mph sign which was clearly not there "for many years" since Google Street View has only been in existence for a few years.
North of this sign the speed limit is currently, and was previously, posted at 35mph, and the speed camera is now located a mere 50 yards south of this point.  We also asked for the name of the engineer who "discovered" the speed limit was wrong, or whether someone pointed this "error" out to them, and for the document that was the basis for saying a 35mph speed limit was "incorrect".   After three business days we received no additional response from the SHA.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cheverly, Forest Heights Speed Cameras Questioned

Residents of the town of Cheverly and Forest Heights have questioned the accuracy of the towns' new speed cameras.

In Cheverly, someone apparently made enough noise about it that the town felt the need to publish a response on August 6th.  The town officials "investigated" the issue and surprisingly discovered that there was no problem whatsoever.  However they did state that they would provide a "provide a completely independent verification of the Optotraffic unit’s calibration" which consisted of the town doing its own comparison using a hand held radar unit.

Of course this is not an "independent verification" because the town collects the revenue from these cameras.  Potentially a great deal of revenue.  Cheverly wrote over $2.5million of new speed camera "fines and forfeitures" into their 2011 budget projections, increasing the town's total budget from $4.4million in FY2010 to over $7million in FY2011.  Town officials have begun openly touting the cameras as a source of revenue from out of town drivers.  The town council recently lowered the speed limit on most local roads by 5mph and is seeking permission from the SHA to add cameras on state highway 202.  In the minutes of a May 2009 council meeting one council member was recorded expressing his view of the cameras: "CM Schachter will have questions about how creatively and expansive the Town could be in interpreting the law regarding the expenditure of these funds. Noted that it doesn’t bother him one bit to make money to be used for additional public good. Can we lower speed limits around the schools? "

Now do you really think they would tell you if they found the cameras were in error?

The cameras used in Cheverly are the same type as those used in Brentwood and other towns in the area which have recently clocked buses traveling at speeds which are virtually impossible.

Similar complaints have been made in the town of Forest Heights, according to a story in the TBD Network and ABC News 7.  Forest Heights also uses the same model of speed camera as Cheverly along Indian Highway.  One business owner received a citation for a 40 foot long 40,000lb RV with a car in tow for traveling 53mph just after turning onto the uphill road.  "It's no way I can even get up to 25 miles an hour in that short period of time in this," ABC news 7 quoted Earl Lomax, a former police officer.  Lomax stated that he requested a court date to challenge his citation but that the courts are now so backed up that he could not receive a court date.

Forest Heights greatly expanded the school zone previously located in the town in order to allow them to place the cameras closer to the point where a 40mph limit dropped to 35. 

By now some Cheverly and Forest Heights residents are starting to realize that they have been duped by town officials who want the cameras to steal from passing drivers... and perhaps town residents as well.  To the citizens who raised these concerns we will now ask "Have you had enough yet?".  If the town council won't listen, write to us and we will.

Optotraffic Investigates Possible Camera Glitch

The contractor for most of the municipal speed camera programs in Prince George's County, Optotraffic/Sigma Space, is investigating a potential glitch which may have overestimated the speed of large vehicles. 

According to the Washington Examiner, a dozen violations involving buses and trucks where the vehicles were recorded traveling 25mph over the limit are considered suspect.  In one case the company Veolia Transportation received a citation from the town of Brentwood on August 20th with a July 28th violation date.  By the time the driver was notified the deadline for requesting a court hearing had already passed.  The driver of the bus was suspended without pay, enrolled in a three day "refresher" training course, and threatened with termination if she received another violation.

Rick Hilmer of Prince George's County Fleet management stated that they were receiving an average of 30 citations per day for county buses.  A spokesperson for the Prince George's county DPWT told the examiner that she doubted a bus could travel nearly 60mph on the road this driver was cited on. has occasionally been contacted by individuals who had been threatened with termination over speed camera citations received while driving company vehicles.  However we have been unable to publish information about those cases because the employees were afraid of reprisals.  Many nationwide companies have policies for disciplining employees for speeding tickets which do not distinguish speed camera citations which are sent out in vastly greater numbers, and with a far lower burden of proof, than human issued citations.

Brentwood earlier this year had to refund a large number of citations when it was discovered that they had been approved by a police officer who had been placed on municipal leave when his contract expired.  The town of Mount Rainier and Brentwood had apparently recently lowered the speed limit at the locations on Rhode Island Avenue by 10mph.

Optotraffic has deployed the same model of camera in Mount Rainier, Riverdale Park, New Carrollton, Cleverly, Forest Heights, and several other towns in Prince George's County.

Source: The Washington Examiner

Saturday, September 4, 2010

New Cameras Pop Up Like Mushrooms

New speed camera sites are going up in Frederick, Montgomery County, Takoma Park, and other places across the state.

The State Highway Administration approved a new work zone speed camera on Route 15 at the intersection with Hayward Road near Frederick.  The speed limit southbound lane in this location is being lowered from 55 mph to 45mph, meaning that citations will be issued at 2mph over the speed limit 'regardless of whether workers are present' according to state law.  The speed limit in the northbound lane remains unchanged.

Montgomery County has approved 25 new camera sites, 1 fixed location and 24 mobile locations.  The mobile locations will be patrolled by a combination of camera vans and portable 'box cams' which are about the size of a large trashcan.  The county held a massive press conference and media rally --- which appeared to have followed the script of the PR and media campaign outlined in the county’s speed camera contract.  The press conference included members of the county government such as Ike Leggett, the head of the County Police's speed camera program who is appointed by those elected officials, representatives of ACS State and Local Solutions (who own and maintain the cameras and receive a cut of every ticket), as well as a representative from AAA Mid Atlantic (AAA presents itself as representing drivers' interests for PR purposes, but their primary business is selling insurance and they have no vested interest in protecting drivers rights).  The county stated to the media that this expansion of the program is about school safety. 11 of the new sites were not in established school zones, and the majority sites located in Montgomery County continue to be located outside of any established school zone(see list and analysis of previous camera sites).

Earlier in August Takoma Park approved two new cameras at 1000 University Blvd and 1000 East-West Highway.  Since these camera sites are located on major state highways so approval from the SHA will need to be obtained.  Takoma Park brought in about $1.28 million in net revenue from its existing camera sites on New Hampshire Ave and Ethan Allen Avenue.

College Park is waiting on approval from the SHA and Prince George's County for new camera sites along Route 123 and Route 1 in a newly created school zone near the university.  Speed cameras are already operating farther south in Mount Rainer and Brentwood near 37th street where the speed limit has been lowered by 10mph from 35 to 25mph just around the camera sites.

The state highway administration is expected to approve College Park's requests. However Prince George's County has been more reluctant to issue permits for cameras on county roads, with a spokesperson for the county DPWT stating they were still hoping to reserve many of its roadways for eventual county-owned cameras.  Any revenue from county run cameras would go into the county rather than the city's coffers.  However earlier this year the Prince George's county government nixed its original plan to add 100 camera sites with County Executive Johnson calling the cameras 'a Tax' and favored a scaled down plan using mobile cameras.  This original plan could still easily be revived... after the elections.

The new cameras ave been added to our speed camera map.  The Takoma Park and College Park locations will added be as well after they receive approval.