Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Optotraffic, Local Governments "Circle the Wagons" to Protect Cash Cow

Optotraffic and various local government clients have launched a coordinated legal and public relations blitz to protect their profitable camera program from claims of errors and other improprieties.  Meanwhile, officials in Prince George's County are attempting to enforce an interpretation of the law which denies drivers the right to use photographic evidence to exonerate themselves, makes the mere accusation by a machine unquestionable proof of guilt, renders the review of citations by police meaningless, and would ensure that for all practical purposes a defendant cannot challenge the accuracy of a camera in court.
Optotraffic recently distributed a gloating press release, singling out a case involving a business owner who unsuccessfully challenged a number of tickets issued to him in a recent court hearing, arguing that this decision against a defendant with no attorney disproves claims that their cameras have produced errors.  The claims of errors were first raised about cameras in Forest Heights last summer, including one case of an RV towing a vehicle recorded moving uphill at an impossible speed for conditions.  At the same time similar claims of errors were independently raised in Cheverly and BrentwoodOther drivers have also claimed errors in Forest Heights, as well as other locations using Optotraffic cameras based on completely different evidence.

The Optotraffic press release was written in such a way as to give the false impression that all of the citations involved in the case were all issued to Mr Will  Foreman and that he was the driver.  The citations in the case were issued by the town of Forest Heights to a business owned by Mr Foreman, which maintains a fleet of delivery vehicles with multiple drivers which accumulated the citations over 15 months.  Forest Heights issued over 75,000 citations worth $3million last year, which works out to 28 citations per resident of the town of pop 2600.  This is out of proportion to the number of violations issued by most other towns of similar size. 

Mr Foreman became an outspoken critic of Optotraffic's cameras since the cameras have placed him in a position of having to decide whether or not to punish his drivers when he does not have confidence in the accuracy of the devices.  He had successfully defeated other citations by presenting photographic evidence which demonstrated that the speed measurements from some of Forest Height's cameras were mathematically impossible.  At least three other judges have ruled such evidence can be admitted.  Other defendants have also previously defeated citations using the same technique.  However in this case, Associate District Court Judge Gerard Devlin (who retired as a full time judge in 2001), ruled differently.  The judge did not disagree with the defendant's estimates of the distance the vehicle traveled between frames or with his calculations about speed based on that distance and the .363 "delta time between frames" imprinted on the citations.  He nevertheless ruled against the use of photographic evidence to disprove speeding, accepting Optotraffic's explanation that citation images cannot be used to determine speed.  Judge Devlin stated to the Examiner in an interview that an expert witness would be required to challenge the accuracy of a device : "He's a layperson, and lay people in courtrooms aren't supposed to give opinions. Only experts give opinions". 

Retaining an expert witness for a court hearing typically costs thousands of dollars, and would probably also necessitate having an attorney which would cost thousands more.  It is unclear who other than the employee of a speed camera company would be accepted by this judge as an expert witness on speed cameras, even though the calculations involved require nothing but high school level math.  Under this ruling if defendant could even find a satisfactory "expert", they might need to incur a cost equal to as many as a hundred speed camera citations to defend a single ticket in court.  Thus there would be no meaningful legal way to challenge the accuracy of a $40 ticket without spending vastly more than they cost, and no mechanism to recover such costs should the defendant prevail.

The judge did accept the word of expert witness Mickey Shepherd, a marketing and public relations specialist whose company has a financial interest in the outcome, regarding technical information about the cameras, without requiring him to provide proof or documentation of those claims.  Mr Shepherd was the publisher of the Optotraffic press release on the hearing, further demonstrating his conflict of interest in the matter.  We previously posted our analysis of what it would mean if Optotraffic's claims that photos cannot be used to verify speed were true.  If Optotraffics's story -- a story which has changed several times since the first reports of errors -- and their convenient interpretation of the law is taken at face value, then there is no meaningful review of citations, no verifiability of speed measurements after the fact, and a total presumption of guilt.  Make no mistake: that situation is more disturbing than the errors themselves. 

Mr Foreman is appealing the decision in his case.
 
Optotraffic has been given the authority to schedule court hearings for its speed camera citations.  Some of the citations in Mr Foreman's court case were 15 months old. Mr Foreman had been seeking hearings for his other citations for 4 months since his successful court challenges, during which time Optotraffic secured a contract with the Prince George's County Government, having already selecting the Lanham based company apparently for political reasons.  Other defendants have also faced long delays for Forest Heights tickets of up to a year, even though the courts reportedly offered Optotraffic additional dates to hold hearings.  Such a delay would have given them time to determine which judges would rule their desired way on this matter of law, and to ensure judges have been presented with certain information prior to hearing a specific high profile case.  Why Optotraffic is permitted to make decisions regarding the timing of court hearings and which defendants get hearings and which do not is completely unclear.  It is also unclear whether the delay in these court hearings could have been deliberate on the part of Optotraffic to serve their own interests.

This particular hearing was timed to occur 3 days before the initiation of that new speed camera program, and was timed to correspond with the release of press releases and public relations videos created by Prince George's County police defending the use of Optotraffic cameras.  Those videos claims the devices are accurate based on a limited number of speed tests.  The test data shows instances where the speeding from the Optotraffic device differed from the reading from a handheld device by 2mph, twice out of only 12 test cases(17%).  The county chose to explain them away the routine occurrence of 2mph errors in their test (which the video itself described as "unscientific" ) and declare this to be acceptable and proof that the devices are reliable, rather than viewing this as cause to examine whether larger errors might occur at a lower rates which would only be seen with a much larger test sample.  They are hoping that you, the members of the public, will believe that because one device CAN be made to produce correct results in a limited number of tests under controlled conditions with an Optotraffic engineer standing by to make sure nothing goes wrong, that they always produces the correct result under all conditions and that there have never been any errors in the past.  That is basically your IT guy claiming that because your computer is not crashing right now, it has never crashed before even though you know it did so yesterday.  A camera placed on a major state highway might have 10,000 vehicles passing it every day, so if a larger error happens one time in 1000 it would happen 10 times per day.... yet would be very unlikely to show up in a sample of 12 tests.  (This assumes that if there had been a single example of a larger error during the test, that you would ever have heard about it and that they would not have declared a 'do over').  The system used in the demonstration at the very least had a different version of software from the one which issued the citations in Forest Heights last year, and was not the same physical device under the same conditions.   The types of defects which we have proposed would be sporadic, and might only appear under certain conditions.  The devices are mobile, meaning they can be redeployed frequently, and the conditions for errors might exist under one deployment but not another.

Forest Heights had conducted a similar "demonstration" after questions were raised about their cameras.  In that case we showed that the vehicle moved much farther in the "non erroneous" images from the test than in citations with allegedly erroneous speed readings, even though the vehicles were supposedly moving the same speed.  This validates that photos CAN be used to verify vehicle speed, because if an error did not take place the vehicle does in fact move the expected distance between frames.  We've also demonstrated how the testing and maintenance of the devices in Forest Heights may not have been as diligent as is advertized, something which this demonstration did not evaluate.

StopBigBrotherMD.org has written to the Prince George's county council twice asking for the opportunity to present the technical information we have about the alleged errors, claims made by multiple other drivers independently.  The county council did not respond to those emails.  A real review to see whether errors have occurred must first involve getting all the evidence of errors.  It should also involve bringing in an outside expert with no financial interest to examine citations taken at the time those errors took place, from the same device, including rejected citations to see whether there is a pattern.  It would also involve requiring Optotraffic to make public ALL of its technical documents about their cameras including the technical details of how the timing of the cameras work, so that an outside expert can examine them.  Our conclusion is that this has not taken place, because those in power are not actually interested in knowing whether or not errors have taken place.  The appearance to us is that they are merely circling the wagons, and throwing up as many legal barriers as possible for anyone who wishes to present proof of errors in court.

One claim StopBigBrotherMD.org has never made is that speed camera defendants typically get fair hearings.  Receiving due process and a presumption of innocence on 'speed camera day' is the exception not the rule.  If a defendant without an attorney challenges a huge corporate-government partnership which is throwing massive resources into a proceeding with a reduced burden of proof, and where an entity with a financial interest controls the courtroom setting, then it is the expected outcome for the defendant to lose regardless of the evidence.  In the past defendants of Optotraffic tickets were facing local governments like Forest Heights which may be corrupt, but since they are also less experienced in these matters defendants still stood a reasonable chance.  Since the county government is now in bed with Optotraffic and has written the promised revenue into their budget, defendants must now face a much larger government entity with more resources and the means to control the courtroom setting.  All of these players have a financial interest to ensuring that defendants stand no chance of receiving a fair hearing and proving errors in court.

With massive resources being used to establish the absolute presumption of guilt in the courtroom, Prince George's County drivers should expect to receive little respect for their legal rights or the norms of justice.   "You are guilty regardless of the evidence, Pay up!"  That is how the powers that be like it.  If you don't like that, write to your state lawmakers or to the county council.  Ask them their position on whether drivers have a right to be exonerated if photographic evidence shows that they were not speeding, and whether they believe this was the legislative intent when speed cameras were approved.  Ask them whether they believe it is appropriate for a contractor who is paid per ticket and with a vested financial and public relations interest in the outcome to be allowed to schedule court hearings and have substantial control over the timing and setting where hearings are held.