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".

StopBigBrotherMD.org 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.