Monday, November 21, 2011

Prince Georges County Court Openly Presumes All Defendants Guilty

Prince George's County Courts have apparently now removed even the trappings of due process and the presumption of innocence from speed camera hearings.  On November 9th, Prince George's County Associate Judge Jean Baron made the statements that the court would not accept any evidence or arguments regarding the accuracy of the device, and that the only defense they would accept was that someone else was driving and to provide that person's identity.  The following opening statements were made by the judge to an entire room full of defendants in Forest Heights Speed Camera cases, before any cases were presented or any evidence or arguments heard:

"The only defense that the court is going to accept if you were not the driver of the vehicle, and you have the name and the address of the person who was driving, and you present that to the court under oath I will accept that as a defense.  Please don't tell me that you know you couldn't have been going that fast or there is something wrong with the equipment.  There is someone here from the jurisdiction who testifies that the equipment was calibrated and validated, or is "self calibrating", and then I'm not going to be able to accept that as a defense."

The statements were made less than two days after documents disclosed by the town of Cheverly were made public, about numerous technical problems they had experienced with the same type of speed cameras (made by Optotraffic, a division of Sigma Space Corporation) as the ones which issued the Forest Heights citations being contested.   The documented errors included an "invisible vehicle" traveling 76mph, a bike traveling 57mph, "unlikely" speed readings for "irregular shaped" vehicles and vehicles with ladder racks and trailers, and "false triggers" caused by moisture in the air.  The cameras Cheverly had been using had the same "self calibration" mechanism as the Forest Heights camera tickets being contested in the November 9th hearing, yet the documents did not state that the automatic calibration tests had failed when the errors occurred.  Cheverly and Optotraffic broke off their contract after the town raised the technical problems and Cheverly has since signed with a new vendor.  The contents of those documents supported claims that the Optotraffic cameras had produced significant number of errors, documented extensively on this site, while Optotraffic has flatly  denied they have experienced any errors.  Optotraffic cameras are also used by Prince George's County's new speed camera program and several other municipalities in Princec George's County.

Listen to the recording for yourself:
and decide whether a hearing held after statements such as the ones made on this day could even remotely be considered a fair, that it is possible the judge had not pre-judged every case that day.  And since she was so confident in what town officials would testify to and what the conclusion she would draw from that would be, should one not wonder what evidence or direction she had been given outside this courtroom setting, and don't the principals of our legal system require defendants be given access to that and have an opportunity to challenge it?

It is a sad sad day for Maryland drivers and for our Justice System.  I hate to be the bearer of  bad news, but it appears that all that stuff you believed in about "reasonable doubt" and the "presumption of innocence" are really just childish fantasies like the tooth fairy... not a fact on the ground for ordinary citizens.  When push comes to shove, the system will not suffer The People to interfere with their cash cow by contesting tickets or perhaps even proving the devices might be flawed.  This is How Justice Dies: with the Presumption of Guilt.

Note: does not believe this is reason to capitulate and stop contesting citations.  Citizens who believe they have received an unfair or incorrect ticket should contest it and insist as loudly as possible that they be provided real due process.  If the people meekly accept this, matters will only get worse.  Fighting back against an unjust system is your civic duty!!!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Red Light Cameras Ticket Stopped Cars

Prince George's County Police are defending a policy of using red light cameras to ticket motorists who come to a full stop at intersections just past the white 'stop line'.

Nolan Church said he received a ticket there for running a red light, in a location where the stop line was three car lengths away from the intersection.  "I absolutely stopped. I was stopped."  County police respond that the stop line is placed where it is to leave space for emergency vehicles.  AAA Spokesman John Townsend disagreed "What the municipality did was to expand the crosswalk. To entrap and ensnare people."

Under Maryland law it is a technical violation of the law to come to stop at a red light past the stop line, even if the car does not enter the intersection or the crosswalk.  However in some cases the stop line is place several car lengths prior to the crosswalk, giving many drivers the impression that they can proceed farther.  In some cases motorists may wish to see into the intersection in order to make turns (for safety), or the driver may simply miscalculate their stopping distance.

Most people are unaware that at some intersections the large majority of red light camera citations are for these 'technical violations' which have almost no chance of causing an accident, rather than 'straight through' red light running -- until they receive such a ticket themselves.  Stop line violations can greatly outnumber actual red-light running violations, so ticketing for such offenses increases the profitability of a red light camera system, both for the municipalities and the contractors who are paid based on the number of citations.

In Maryland red light camera tickets typically carry a $75 fine, with an implied threat to increase the penalty to $100 if the violation is challenged, discouraging many from contesting tickets.  Some violations issued by municipalities such as New Carrolton, which have a policy of using cameras to issue stop line tickets, have been successfully challenged in court.

1/12/2012: Observe how this is part of a national trend, with red light cameras used to ticket motorists engaged in perfectly safe behavior:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Optotraffic Contract with Cheverly Canceled, Town Records Expose Camera Errors

Optotraffic's speed camera contract with the town of Cheverly was canceled in August of this year, and records released by the town in response to a public information act request reveal a variety of errors and technical issues with the Optotraffic cameras which the town had complained about.
In a July 26, 2011 letter to Mario Bohorquez, Chief Commercial Officer of Optotraffic (a Division of Sigma Space Corporation), the town administrator discussing a variety of errors which the company had been unable to satisfactorily explain or remedy.

I am writing as a follow-up to my April letter and our subsequent meeting on May 4rth regarding various problems with your equipment and administrative issues.

Violations with tags visible in only one photo were an issue in April.

At the meeting, you indicated that these were false triggers that could have been caused by moisture in the air.  We note that if 90% of the photos collected were false triggers, then we were concerned about the accuracy of the remaining 10% where two tag images were captured.  You noted that the cameras were working correctly, however, you agreed to have the technicians look at the camera.  They did, and it was removed from service.  The cameras returned to service in a number of days later and was capturing photos of vehicles doing less than the posted speed limit, vehicles doing the speed limit and still vehicles in violation, but with only one tag image.
On July 21rst I was called to a meeting by your staff members to again discuss the situation.  Mickey was ill-prepared and had us all wait while he read the technical staff report provided by Ms. Anjenette Cramer, which he noted was very technical and could not be explained in laymen's terms.  He did state that there was nothing wrong with the camera and it was taken to download upgraded software.  We noted the capturing of speeds under the posted speed limit and he explained it as having been set low in the shot, but not reset when put back in service.  We noted that we were still getting one tag pictures for violators, this precluding us from issuing tickets in accordance with the state law.  He did not believe us and would not accept our statement unless he saw proof.  Not having it in hand the meeting was concluded until we could provide proof.  ENCLOSED is the proof.

Not only are the cameras still not functioning properly, they now are producing violations for invisible vehicles going 76 miles per hour (violation # 79) and bicycles going 38 and 57 miles per hour (violation #2790 & #2783) and now violations with just a part of a vehicle in only one photo.

Finally, we continue to get false speed readings for vehicles that have an irregular size such as buses and trucks with ladder racks.

Rather than have meeting to have Mickey tell us "that it’s technical" we would like you to have an explanation for the equipment problems provided to us in writing.  I look forward to hearing from you in the next 10 days."
The town did not release citation images, which are exempt from disclosure under the Public Information Act.  No written response from Optotraffic was included in the disclosure, if one was ever provided.

Shortly thereafter in August, with Cheverly officials apparently having lost faith in their company and hardware and had previously declared them to be "in breach of contract" in an April 21rst letter, Optotraffic sought to get ahead of the situation by exercising the option in the contract to terminate it (thus making it appear that the decision to do so was theirs).  At the same time Optotraffic widely distributing press releases declaring that it had "successfully accomplished its mission to support the Town of Cheverly in its efforts to reduce speeding".  The company even claimed that they had brought about a 96% reduction in speed violations, BUT FAILED TO MENTION THE FACT THAT THE REDUCTION IN CITATIONS WAS DUE TO HARDWARE MALFUNCTIONS.  In fact this was noted in another document disclosed by the town "Finally, I would be remiss to not note that the reduction /elimination of the ticket volume in the month of July and August were a result of the malfunctioning of the camera, which was the topic of our discussion at our June 14th meeting and resulted in the removal and attempted repair of the camera.  The explanations from your staff of the calibration error codes, false positives, malfunctions due to moisture in the air, uploading of new software and the break down of the generator served to reduce the number of citable speeding violations."

Unfortunately, the Optotraffic press release was only the latest in a long string of deceptions by the company.  Optotraffic employees have been standing up before the public, elected officials, and the press stating that the company had never seen proof of any errors by their cameras.  Those statements do not seem to be true.

In addition to the errors, other documents describe how calibration tests were not working properly, with calibration logs not appearing in the system until days after they were supposed to have been performed.

Additional documents dating back to August 2010 show police voiding citations for vehicles with ladder racks or trailers under the apparent belief that the speed measurement was incorrect.  "Also, if ladders atop trucks fives a false reading do roof racks, ski rackes, etc, cause a similar false reading?  Such as the following events..." a Cheverly Police officer wrote to Optotraffic CFO Mario Bohorquez in an August 6 2010 email.  No response to that question from Optotraffic was included in any of the disclosed documents.

(update 11/12/2011): Cheverly published a statement saying that it is "confident that all citations issued through its Speed Enforcement Program are accurate", stating that they had a strict standards for issuing citations "above and beyond the normal citation issuance process" and that all citations issued passed that review. 

We have reported extensively on the situation with Optotraffic cameras previously, including how some citizens in Cheverly had confronted the town council in the summer of 2010 about camera errors.  Other town residents had complained to town officials in private under the belief they had received citations with erroneous speed readings prior to the disclosure.

Reports of erroneous speed reading with large vehicles in other towns, like those described in the Cheverly documents, date back to summer of 2010 at the same time similar incidents had been reported elsewhere.  We have documented how errors have also been reported in College Park, Forest Heights, and several other towns.  Yet unfortunately, other local government clients chose to circle the wagons and deny the errors took place.  When defendants from those other towns go to court to challenge their tickets, representatives from those governments and Optotraffic have been standing up in court making claims about the accuracy and reliability of these machines and that they are operated and maintained properly (often without proof), and judges tend to believe those claims.  It seems reasonable to assume that innocent people may have been found guilty based on such testimony.

Cheverly has done the responsible thing, by admitting the problems they experienced and removing the cause of those problems (Optotraffic).  They should be commended for taking the risk and doing the right thing.  But other towns have not done so.  It is time for an independent investigation into Optotraffic's cameras, but more importantly into Optotraffic itself.  It is time for the public to find out whether other local governments have had similar issues, and who knew about these errors when Optotraffic was standing up before elected officials, the press, and in court, stating that they have had no errors.  It is time for other local governments who, unlike Cheverly, have obstructed public information act requests to keep the truth from the public (we will be placing a spotlight on THOSE local governments in the near future), to come clean and release ALL the records they have pertaining to errors with these devices.  And perhaps it is time to investigate whether some obstructions and deceptions may in fact constitute criminal violations of the law.

We will have MUCH more on this story.  Please come back soon.

Additional Coverage:
  Washington Examiner
  Washington Times

Saturday, November 5, 2011

DC Council Members Propose Lowering Speed Limits to 15mph

DC Carpoolers May Soon Really be Slugging it to Work
Two DC council members have proposed legislation to lower speed limits on numerous residential streets in the District from 25mph to 15mph.  According to WTOP, Council Members Muriel Bowser and Tommy Wells say their proposal would make streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. "Dialing back our speed 10, even 15 miles per hour while we're on neighborhood streets, it literally adds up to second, maybe a minute or two," Miller says. "Isn't the safety of our children and our seniors and everybody worth a couple of minutes of driving safely?"

DC has one of the most extensive photo enforcement programs in the nation, bringing in $40.7million in speed camera revenue in FY2010.  Unlike Maryland, there are no specific restrictions on where cameras can be placed, and no specific 'threshhold' above the speed limit when tickets can be issued.  Were the proposal to go forwards, there would be no legal reason the District could not deploy speed cameras to ticket previously law-abiding drivers for traveling at breakneck speeds in the range of 16-20mph.

In addition, since driving even 1mph over the speed limit is a technical violation of the law, a driver recklessly traveling over 15mph could be legally be pulled over by police and ticketed.  Given that most cars can exceed 15mph without even touching the gas pedal, nearly every driver would end up exceeding 15mph at some point.  From a civil liberties perspective DC would be giving police probable cause to stop any driver at almost any time, charge them with a traffic violation, and thereby potentially subject their vehicles to a search as well.

The proposal is likely based on the common misconception that drivers always drive 5-10mph over the speed limit regardless of what it is set at.  However numerous studies have shown that this is not the case: the reality is that most drivers travel at what they believe is the safe speed for conditions, that lowering (or raising) speed limits has little overall effect on traffic accident rates, and that the primary affect in lowering speed limits is to reduce compliance and increase the public's contempt for the law (See studies listed on the NMA's website).  If DC has such contempt for their own residents that they wish to turn reasonable safe drivers into lawbreakers and encourage the belief that speed limits are unreasonable and not set by any rational standard, by all means set the speed limit to 15mph.