Saturday, February 19, 2011

Lawmakers Want to Remove Police Oversight, Exempt Cops from Tickets

The 2011 Maryland General Assembly is considering Legislation pertaining to speed cameras.  One bill being considered would remove the requirement that sworn police officers review speed camera citations, while another would exempt police from receiving tickets.

Removing Police From the Process:
A version of the first bill is labeled House Bill 664 in the house of delegates and Senate Bill 671 in the state senate.  The Sponsors are Delegates Barbara Frush and Senator Rosapepe (both from District 21, Anne Arundel & Prince George's County). The text of the bill would change the law that citations include
(viii) A signed statement by a duly authorized law enforcement officer employed by or under contract with an agency that, based on inspection of recorded images, the motor vehicle was being operated in violation of this 26 subtitle;to
(viii) A signed statement by AN AUTHORIZED PERSON TRAINED IN SPEED MONITORING SYSTEM ENFORCEMENT AND employed by or under contract with an agency...
This has the effect of allowing ANYONE designated by the local government to rubber stamp... er I mean approve... speed camera citations.  In addition to the fact that they don't need to be sworn police, it specifically states that they can be 'under contract' with an agency, as in an employee of a contractor... maybe even one who gets paid based on the number of tickets issued (as is the norm for speed camera contractors).  The bill states that they must be "trained in speed monitoring enforcement", but does not specify what this is training consists of.  It could consist simply of telling them how to turn the citation approval workstation on, that would be legal under this bill.

Now imaging you are a contractor working for a for-profit company which gets paid per ticket, or a government agency that is trying to meet a budget quota for ticket revenue.  You've got two buttons labeled "approve" and "reject".  Every time you hit "approve" your performance appraisal score goes up, every time you hit "reject" it goes down.  From time to time you get a citation which is borderline as to whether it is valid evidence or not (maybe there are two cars in the image, maybe the license plate is blurry, maybe there's some problem with the data on the citation).  Which button are you going to press?

There have been numerous examples of errors which have slipped through citation review procedures.  These include tickets going to the wrong vehicle, vehicles cited for impossible speeds, machines configured to enforce the wrong speed limit, or tickets going to vehicles not even visible in the picture.  There have been other cases showing how lax review procedures for photo tickets are now, including in Brentwood when a police officer whose contract was expired 'reviewed' 3500 tickets while on administrative leave, and also a case in Baltimore where a deceased police officer 'signed' 2000 tickets after his death.  One might ask whether it is even possible for citation review procedures to be any more lax.  However in fact it could get worse, for example Montgomery County reported in 2009 that it had thrown out over 24,000 citations due to various citation or operator errors or after concluding that no violation had occurred.  But apparently some state lawmakers would like to find out anyways.

Exemption for Police from Camera Tickets:
Two other bills sponsored by Delegate Frank Conaway (District 40, Baltimore) would exempt Police and emergency vehicles from receiving speed and red light camera tickets.  House Bill 1205 adds the provision "RECORDED IMAGES OF A LAW ENFORCEMENT VEHICLE MAY NOT BE THE BASIS FOR A CIVIL PENALTY OR THE ISSUANCE OF A CITATION UNDER THIS SECTION."

"Emergency Vehicles" would be exempted under a separate bill House Bill 1172, although the term is not defined by the bill.

There have been numerous cases of police in Montgomery County being caught speeding on camera.  The county did in fact issue citations when they decided the police were not responding to emergencies, however the Police Union encouraged its members not to pay the tickets and several police challenged them.  An appeals court at first ruled in the cops favor, stating that their due process rights had been violated and it was not reasonable for polcie to recall whether they were responding to a call or not weeks later, but this decision was then overturned by the state's highest court.  HB 1205 would seem to settle the matter once and for all: exempting all police from speed and red light camera tickets whether they are responding to emergencies or not.

In the case of emergency vehicles, it seems like a no-brainer that an ambulance responding to a call should be exempt from traffic tickets, since lives would be at stake if they did NOT violate traffic laws.  However in a case like Prince George's county where almost every municipality has created its own program, and its own rules for reviewing and approving citations.  It is highly likely, although not known for certain, that municipalities outside Montgomery county have issued tickets to police and/or emergency vehicles.  We will leave it as an exercise for someone to determine whether or not cities like Baltimore, Brentwood, Forest Heights, New Carrollton, etc have actually issued speed camera tickets to ambulances other emergency vehicles owned by other municipalities, counties, or private hospitals.