Thursday, February 10, 2011

Forest Heights Speed Camera Investigation Part II: The Cover Up

In Part I of our Investigation into Forest Heights speed cameras we disclosed a large number of citation photos which appear to show inaccurate speed readings by the town's cameras, deployed by Optotraffic on Indian Head Highway. In Part II of our investigation, we discuss how Forest Heights officials denied public information act requests, thereby preventing information about the nature and extent of errors from becoming public.

In September of 2010 the complaints about errors by the town's cameras were first disclosed on TBD News. Shorty thereafter, some drivers started stepping forward complaining that they had tried to obtain court hearings, but instead of receiving court dates they instead were sent late notices threatening to suspend their vehicle registrations if they did not pay.
In response to this, StopBigBrotherMD send a Maryland Public Information Act Request to the town (which you can read HERE)  requesting all documents and correspondence dated from April 1, 2009 to present regarding, among other things:
  • possible error in speed measurements made by speed cameras employed by Forest Heights
  • complaints from citizens claiming that speed camera citations were issued in error
  • potential causes of errors by speed cameras in measuring the speed of large vehicles
  • complaints from citizens who have requested court hearings for speed camera citations but instead were issued late penalties or notices that their registrations would be suspended on a particular date  
Forest Heights Police sent a reply dated October 7th, denying access to ALL records in our request.  In that denial they stated:
  • that FHPD does not currently maintain any disclosable public records in its custody for the period requested specifially pertaining to possible errors', that the law "does not require the FHPD to prepare such records", and at the same time caliming that any such records were subject to 'attorney client privledge'
  • Claimed that "the FHPD has not received any such complaints from citizens for said period that have not received a citation but have claimed that speed cameras citations were issued in error" (yes you are reading that correctly, they said they received no such complaints from individuals who were NOT issued tickets). At the same time, they claimed that any records regarding people who had received citations were "compiled as part of a law enforcement investigation" and would not be disclosed. They additionally claimed they would not disclose them because the sender of the request was not a "person in interest".
  • that they had no disclosable public records in its custody specifically pertaining to potential causes of errors by speed cameras in measuring the speed of large vehicles' and then followed up by saying "The Act does not require the FHPD to prepare such records in order to be responsive to your request. They further denied these records on the grounds of Attorney Client Privilege
  • that they had in fact received complaints from citizens relating to requests for court hearings but who instead were issued lated penalties or warnings of suspensions of their registrations. However this request was still denied on the grounds that they were "part of an investigatory file of the FHPD concerning persons that are or may be considering litigation". They further denied these records on the grounds that the request had not been made by a "Person In Interest" 
StopBigBrotherMD sent a response to the Forest Heights Police refuting their reasons for rejecting the request. In this response was sent certified mail on October 16.   Among the complaints we made were that :
  • Documents cannot be designated as part of an investigation merely for the purpose of withholding them. And that according to “The agency must, in each particular PIA action, demonstrate that it legitimately was in the process of or initiating a specific relevant investigative proceeding in order to come under the aegis of the exemption." 
  • That our rwequest was being made on behalf of several ticket recipients, and we proceeded to list three individuals who were seeking the information for their own defense. The right of a local government to withhold investigatory records from a person in interest
  • That we would agree to have all personal identifiable information of ticket recipients redacted
  • That regarding the matter of their 'not maintaining' certain records, we reminded them that letters, emails, and memos all constitute public records under the MPIA whether they choose to designat them as such or not
  • We requested that the specific records being withheld be listed
StopBigBrotherMD received NO RESPONSE to this despite several attempts to follow up.

Additionally, one ticket recipient sent her own MPIA request for nearly the same information. She also received a reply in October from the city, which they also denied. The fact that she was a 'person in interest' in a speed camera case, and was in fact claiming inaccurate speed readings, made no difference.

The only item they did send her in response to this request was a copy of the daily setup log.  When she provided this to us, we immediately noticed several irregularities.
  • there was no 'test result report' as is normally included in these setup logs
  • the signatures were all by the same person, signed in nearly perfectly straight lines, and was every single day including weekends and holidays for a full consecutive month. This would imply that this camera operator did not take one single day off including weekends and the 4rth of july for a full month!
  • One of the dates were strangely listed in the wrong order 7/26/2010, 7/28/2010, 7/27/2010, 7/28/2010, 7/29/2010
In response to this we sent the town a follow-up request asking for, among other things, a copy of this camera operator's timesheet. No response was ever received. We also requested an administrative review, which the Maryland Public Information act requires us to be granted if a request is denied. No response to that request or an administrative hearing was ever provided.
Eventually, some of the ticket recipients were able to obtain court hearings, but the requested records for their defense were never provided to them and they needed to go to court without that information. One defendant reported having one citation dismissed while being forced to pay another. She reported that at this hearing the city presented additional logs, which had not been provided in response to her request, which she was unable to examine in advance or make copies of.
Some information about the program is available in public records. We do know the town's Budget for speed cameras which is available on the town's website. The town plans to bring in $2.8million in gross revenue.  The town's FY10 budget, before the speed camera program was started, was $1.7million.... substantially smaller than the camera program's projected gross revenue.   Assuming that amount of revenue is collected, according to state law approximately $1million will go to the state, who provided a permit to the city to use speed cameras on a state highway, and also expanded a school zone onto Indian Head Highway in response to the town's request. The remaining amount will be divided between the town and the its contractor, Optotraffic (a division of Sigma Space Corporation).
Forest Heights has a history of political intrigue and corruption. On Jan 19, 2011 the town's council voted to suspend mayor Andrea McCutcheon for misuse of funds. In 2006, former mayor Myles Spires was also suspended over allegations that he misused fund. Spires was indicted but not convicted of associated charges. Spire's predecessor was involved in controversies as well.

We received some word that the State Highway Administration might have confronted Forest Heights over the matter of its inaccurate cameras.  However it appears no action was actually taken.  Tom Hicks, Director of the SHA's Traffic and Safety office stated to the Gazette that "We are concerned if something is shown to be inaccurate," But the state has not, and does not plan, to investigate the matter of innacuracies."We don't want to interfere with a local government's rights, privileges and responsibilities to public safety," Hicks said.

However the SHA _IS_ involved: Indian Head Highway (MD 210) is a state highway under the SHA's juridsiction.  According to a letter received by from the SHA, the SHA approved a request from "Forest Heights for a new school zone at MD 210 and Talbert Driver" where the speed cameras are now deployed.  And the SHA issued a permit to Forest Heights to used these speed cameras on a state highway.  That permit expires May 6, 2011.  It is entirely withing the SHA's authority to get involved if they want to.  We would encourage our readers to contact the SHA and ask them to do their duty to stop this CORRUPT speed camera program by DENYING THE RENEWAL OF Forest Heights' speed camera permit on MD210.