Friday, December 31, 2010

Resolve to Fight Scameras in the New Year!

In 2010 we discovered an increasing number of abuses of speed cameras in the state of Maryland, as well as proof that innocent people have been receiving scamera tickets.  Among these have included:
1) The creation of vast numbers of new school zones solely for the purpose of adding 'school zone' speed cameras, many not adjacent to any school.

2) A Baltimore City speed camera issuing hundreds of tickets in error after being set to the wrong speed limit.

3) The systematically failure to perform daily calibration tests, required by law, by both Gaithersburg and Montgomery County

4) It was discovered that Gaithersburg had placed one camera at a location where the SHA concluded the speed limit was set 10mph to low according to accepted traffic engineering standards.  When confronted with this and the SHA's request to lower the speed limit, the city responded by demanding that the reduced speed zone instead be enlarged.

5) Some local governments wrote huge amounts of revenue into their FY11 budgets from speed cameras.  Cheverly in particular wrote $2.8million in 'fines and forfeitures' or 36% of the entire budget, after lowering the default speed limit in the town by 5mph. Forest Heights also wrote $2.8million in speed camera fines into their FY11 budget, an amount larger than their entire FY10 budget.

6) The speed limits at camera sites on US Route 1 in Brentwood and Mount Rainier were discovered to have been lowered by 10mph shortly before the town added the cameras.  The cameras are enforcing a 25mph speed limit in a location which had been posted at 35mph for years prior.  A similar situation later appeared in College Park, where the city DPW altered speed limit signs on Metzerott Road to enable a speed camera to enforce a 30mph speed limit in a location which was previously marked as 40mph.  The change was made the same month the camera started issuing tickets.

7) Questions were raised about the accuracy of cameras in Brentwood and Forest Heights. The 'investigation' (if any) was conducted only by the contractor, who has a financial stake in finding no problem.

8)  Forest Heights failed to provide court hearings in a timely manner to ticket recipients who requested them.  The defendants were not sent court dates for a period of well over 3 months, during which time the drivers were sent notices that their registrations would be suspended if they did not pay, seemingly trying to coerce them into paying rather than exercising their right to contest the tickets and risk additional penalties for driving with a suspended registration.

9) One driver confirmed receiving a ticket from Brentwood when he had never even been to the town. The ticket was for another model of car, showing that meaningful human review of tickets often does not take place.

10) Montgomery County tries to assert that drivers do NOT have the right to confront the speed camera operator in court, obliterating what little right to face your accuser you had left.

And this is only what could be described as the 'low hanging fruit'... the facts that could be easily uncovered in open sources and public documents.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Baltimore County Councilmember Calls for Speed Camera Expansion

Baltimore County Councilmember Tom Quirk is calling for an increase in the number of speed cameras in that county.  Baltimore County initially implemented a modest pilot program with 15 camera sites in existing school zones, a number which was built into the county's original authorization for speed cameras.  The new proposed legislation would remove the restriction and allow an unlimited number of cameras.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Montgomery County Safe Speed Says Operators Need Not Appear in Court

Montgomery County has asserted that it is not required to present speed camera operators in court even if the defendants request them to appear in writing.

One individual challenging a speed camera reported to us that he asked the Safe Speed Program's representative over the phone how to request the operator appear, and was told that for fixed pole cameras the operator who signed the camera logs and performed the 'daily self test' would not actually be present, that the operator's supervisor would appear instead. 

StopBigBrotherMD.org sent an email to the the safe speed program on December 16th requesting confirmation of this fact, and we did not receive a response by Dec 28th.  We then called the safe speed program's phone number and asked whether if a defendant requested the operator appear whether it would be the actual operator who signed the camera logs for the day of the violation.  The representative Stated that for mobile units the actual technician would be present if requested, however for fixed pole cameras it would be the operator's supervisor who appeared instead and that he would present the camera logs.  We then asked  if a defendant wanted to ask a question such as 'were you working on this day' for a ticket issued on a weekend (as we had previously reported that many speed camera logs had not been filled in on for several days in a row, particularly weekends and holidays) she at first seemed to sidestep the question by stating that school zone cameras do not issue tickets on weekends.  When we pointed out to her that Montgomery county has many cameras that are not in school zones (and in fact the large majority of Montgomery County's speed cameras are not located in school zones) she stated that she believed the logs were filled out before and after the weekend if the operator was not working.

While the county's position appears to be that presenting the operator is not required, judges have not always agreed with this.  One defendant at a Montgomery County District Court 'Speed Camera Day' in November 2010 stated that his citation was dismissed when the operator who signed the camera's logs was not present, and he was able to prove that he sent the request for the operator by certified mail.  The county's representative reportedly argued on that day that on other occasions just having the logs was enough.

In addition, the Montgomery County Office Of Legislative Oversight's report on the safe speed program (Sept 29, 2009) did include "Violator requested the Technician to be present at the hearing and Technician was not available;" as one of the few reasons why speed camera citations had been dismissed by the District Court (see pg 38).  Thus there were at least some cases prior to Sept 2009 when a judge decided against the county on this basis. It is probable the county does in fact have a District Court precedent supporting their side (they have yet to respond to our request for a copy of any such decision), but such a court decision was probably based on a defendant appearing without an attorney (as is the case with almost every defendant on speed camera day) who would not have been prepared to counter any legal argument the County's teams of paid attorneys would have constructed.  As such we don't believe defendants (or courts) should take Montgomery County at their word if they try to claim that this is decided law.

We note however the current wording of state law for speed monitoring systems (sec 21-809) reads as follows :
"(2) If a person who received a citation under subsection (d) of this section desires THE speed monitoring system operator to be present and testify at trial, the person shall notify the court and the State in writing no later than 20 days before trial."
We note that the wording is "the" speed monitoring system operator, not "a" speed monitoring system operator, and that another portion of the state law specifies that it is the camera operator's duty to perform the self tests on the machine and fill out and sign a daily setup logs.  As such specific duties of the operator are spelled out.  One could read this and conclude that the intent was to require the county to present someone in court who was capable of testifying about how the device was ACTUALLY operated in this particular instance, not how it is supposed to be operated in theory.  Otherwise the county could simply deliberately not choose to present a person in court who might need to admit to an error or problem with the system.  Thus, regardless of the county's position, a court could possibly still interpret this as meaning the specific operator who signed the logs must still attend upon request.  We suggest that if it was the intention of the Maryland General Assembly to explicitly strip citizens of their right to face the camera operator in court, then they should consider rewording this in the 2011 session (which will start in January), among the other changes they will no doubt be considering to further reduce the legal rights of Maryland drivers.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Baltimore Speed Cameras Made $15million in First Year

ABCNews 2 reports that Baltimore's speed cameras issued a total of 379,237 citations in their first twelve months, worth a total of $15.2million. 

Baltimore had originally written $7.1million in net revenue into their FY10 budget, an amount proposed before the any camera sites were selected and only a few days after the speed camera law was approved by the state legislature.  The 12 month period these citations were issued in would covers part of FY11 as well, the $7.1million figure was a 9-month estimate based on paying their contractor a share of this revenue.  The $15 million, assuming all citations were paid, would be divided between the city and their contractor(ACS).

Baltimore designated a vast number of new 'school zones' to permit these cameras, a fact admitted to by the Baltimore Department of Transportation last year.  Areas eligible for "school zone" cameras now cover over 80% of the city, including locations which are not adjacent to any school and even locations where schools have been shut down.

It is unclear whether this 379,237 ticket total includes the over 900 citations which one Baltimore camera issued in error earlier this year when it was configured to the wrong speed limit.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Speed Limit Changed at College Park Camera Site

Speed limit signs were recently changed at the site of one very profitable new speed camera in College Park.

The camera, located near the 3200 block of Metzerott Road, was added on November 16th, 2010.
Camera Viewed From East, 3200 Block Metzerott Rd
Photos obtained by StopBigBrotherMD .org of that camera site show that the speed limit on eastbound Metzerott Road is 40mph until less than 1/10th of a mile before the camera, where a sign for “Speed Limit 30” is located.
New 30mph Sign, Metzerott Rd Eastbound


 However Google Street View images of that same area show no 30mph sign present in that location.  Instead a ‘reduced speed ahead’ sign (with no speed limit shown) was located just before the 3200 block, where the 30mph sign is now.  
Legacy Image of Metzerott Eastbound, west of current camera site
See several old images near the (present day) camera location here:
(click to enlarge)
The "Reduced Speed Ahead" sign has apparently been replaced by the "Speed Limit 30" sign, effectively shifting the start of the posted 30mph speed limit zone to this point.  In the Google Street View images, the first 30mph sign was located approximately 1/3rd of a mile farther to the east near 35th street, well past the current location of the camera.    As such, the Metzerott Road speed camera is apparently enforcing a 30mph speed limit at a point where a 40mph speed limit would have been in effect not long ago.

These diagrams illustrate the changes to the posted speed limits indicated by the images we have obtained:

Before: red = 30mph, blue = 40mph
After, camera location indicated by icon near 30&40mph signs at speed transition
A resident in the area reported to us that he first saw the new 30mph sign in mid November, close to the date this camera started issuing tickets.  Other evidence we have received (which we are withholding for now at the request of our source) supports the fact that this 30mph sign was added in November 2010.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Full Body Scans... For Your Car? Coming Soon to a Street Near You!

Most of you heard the recent media stir over the TSA's new security measures, which include full-body x-rays which create naked images of people's bodies.  If you liked that, you will love what is quietly finding its way onto America's roads: x-Ray scanners which can look inside your car.  The new 'Z-Backscatter Vans', as their manufacturer calls them, are capable of looking through vehicle walls and outlining the cargo and passengers.  The technology is also capable of peering through people's clothing and through the walls of some buildings.

This technology is fairly mature already, having been used in Afghanistan and Iraq to search for bombs for several years now.  In fact, your car may have already been scanned by one of these devices without your ever being made aware of it.  The manufacturer claims to have sold "more than 500 backscatter x-ray scanners mounted in vans that can be driven past neighboring vehicles to see their contents."  The scanners are already in use by the Homeland Security Department, U.S Customs and Border Protection, and the State Department, and could be used by local law enforcement for any purpose as well.  The new technology is largely unregulated, and there are few if any restrictions on how or where it is used, and no requirement that people be informed that they are being exposed to x-rays from the scans.

Not only can vehicles be imaged, but the same type of technology used in airport scanners is being modified to permit scanning of human bodies on the streets.  A dutch paper reported that the technology has the potential to conduct "mass scans on crowds at events such as football matches”, and that it is now mature and “The biggest challenge is making it portable and ensuring it can carry out a scan in seconds.”

We wonder if they will also start giving cars 'enhanced patdowns' and telling us we 'consented' to being scanned and searched when we got our drivers licenses?  But don't worry, you should at least be able to 'opt out' by lining your basement with lead and never leaving it.