Friday, October 28, 2011

Study Cautions on Privatizing Law Enforcement

A new study by a pro-consumer group says the practice of privatizing law enforcement of traffic violations may be putting profits ahead of safety and accuracy. An estimated 60 million Americans live in communities where the are monitored by automated ticketing machines, according to the study by the US Public Research Group (US PIRG), a left-leaning public interest group.

"Pitfalls can arise when contracts encourage vendors to treat automated traffic enforcement systems as a profit center: by maximizing the number of tickets written, regardless of the impact on public safety; by limiting the ability of governments to set traffic safety policies according to community needs; or by constraining the ability of cities to terminate contracts early in the event that automated enforcement systems are rejected by the electorate or fail to meet safety goals," the study explained.

The report points out how most contract arrangements provide incentives to contractors which could compromise the integrity of the system:
"Contracts between private camera vendors and cities can include payment incentives that put profit above traffic safety.", "The most problematic contracts require cities to share revenue with the camera vendor on a per-ticket basis or through other formulas as a percentage of revenue. In other words, the more tickets a camera system issues, the more profit the vendor collects."
In Maryland, state law was supposed to forbid per-ticket contracts, by including the following : ""If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid."  However this provision has been effectively circumvented in nearly every jurisdiction in the state, starting with Montgomery County, and soon followed by similar per-ticket contracts in Baltimore City, Forest Heights, Brentwood, Mount Rainier, College Park, New Carrollton, Riverdale Park, Frederick City, Prince George's County, and many others.  In nearly every case the vendor provides, installs/deploys, and maintains the machines, then processes violations, mails violations, and collects payments.  In some cases vendors have also provided the traffic surveys used to determine where cameras should be placed.   Also, in many cases the vendor also schedules court hearings.  Failure of one vendor to provide timely hearings created situations in Forest Heights where drivers needed to wait OVER A YEAR to receive hearings, by which time the "speed monitoring system operator" who signed the logs, was no longer available to testify about an apparent possible failure to perform the required tests or what appeared to be falsification of evidence --  the testimony of a company representative was accepted instead. 

The study also cautions how "The privatized traffic law enforcement industry has amassed significant political clout that it uses to shape traffic safety nationwide.".  This has manifested itself in Maryland in the form of camera companies lobbying for statewide speed cameras, treating lawmakers to expensive steak dinners, and even one company creating "Astroturf sites" in Baltimore County and Howard County to promote the expansion of speed cameras there. Another concern would be that contracts might be awarded to companies which have made substantial campaign contributions.

Unlike some other studies supporting speed cameras, studies funded by camera companies or other entities which benefit financially from photo enforcement, USPIRG does not have a specific financial interest in photo enforcement one way or the other. 
 
One issue mentioned in the report which we would add is the loss of accountability and transparency, particularly that placement of responsibility in the hands of a private company also places certain records out of the reach of states' open records laws.
"Unlike a public entity, a private operator is not subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the public. It may also seek to prevent public scrutiny by declaring certain information to be a “proprietary business secret.” This should not be allowed."
StopBigBrotherMD.org has witnessed the effect of this in several cases where local governments have claimed that records pertaining to the operation or technical characteristics of speed cameras were in the hands of the contractor rather than the police.  The vendor would then claim that they cannot release the documents, effectively denying a defendant access to evidence they were seeking for their legal defense.  In some cases even documents which by their nature must have been in the hands of the local government which is claimed to "operate" the devices, rather than a contractor which the police claim do not operate the devices, were effectively denied in this way.

More Information on:
                   U.S.PIRG Website                   
                   TheNewsPaper.com
                   USA Today
                   Washington Post

Thursday, October 27, 2011

State Looks to Solve Budget Woes on Backs of Motorists

Faced with yet another looming budget shortfall, the state of Maryland believes it has found a panacea which will solve all its money problems: tax motorists.

The state legislature is set to consider increasing the state's gas tax by 15 cents per gallon in (a 63.8% increase over the current rate of 23.5 cents per gallon).  In addition to a gas tax hike, the proposal would include increasing the vehicle registration fees by 50%, increasing the titling fees from 6% to 6.5%, and doubling the cost of vehicle emissions inspections.

State Senate President Mike Miller has made clear his own intention to ram though a gas tax hike regardless of any opposition, "There's going to be a gas tax." Miller told the Maryland Chamber of Commerce in blunt terms, "It is going to have to get done now."

Supporters of the proposal stated that the revenue is needed, and that it is necessary to shore up the Transportation Trust Fund in order to improve and maintain our transportation infrastructure.  Critics claimed that the state has been raiding the Transportation Trust Fund for years in order to support non-transportation projects.

These increase come after the state decided to substantially raise most tolls in the state, with the new rates going into effect November 1.  As an example, the cash toll rate for the Bay Bridge will be rising from $2.50 to $4, a 60% increase.  The toll at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway (I-95) and Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge (US 40) will increase from $.80 to $1.50, an 87.5% increase.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

DHS Doesn't Want Their Plates Photographed

You have probably all seen or heard about the license plate covers which are supposed to shield your plate number from being photographed by speed and red light cameras.  It appears that some police vehicles are equipt with such plate covers, including one FPS(Federal Protective Services, a component of the Department of Homeland Security) vehicle which was photographed in Montgomery County Maryland.
 If you enlarge the image, you can see the plate numbers are actually pretty much legible, not a good indication of the effectiveness of the device.  However another photo taken at the same time which was in somewhat poorer focus showed the characters on the plate at least partially obscured.
So perhaps they are 50% effective.  However that's not a particularly good ratio, given that the devices are illegal in Maryland.  In Maryland a "registration plate cover" is defined as  "any tinted, colored, painted, marked, clear, or illuminated object that is designed to:
(1) Cover any of the characters of a vehicle’s registration plate; or
(2) Distort a recorded image of any of the characters of a vehicle’s registration plate recorded by a traffic control signal monitoring system under § 21-202.1 of this article.
"
and having one on your plate carries a $60 fine. In Virginia, the devices could run you up to a $200 fine, and in DC the maximum fine would be a whopping $500.

In 2005 WTOP reported how some local DC police vehicles had been found with the plate covers, and police responded that they would inform the officers to remove the covers from their plates.  In fact in DC city officials have gone so far as to claim even a license plate frame is illegal if it covers the "Taxation Without Representation" slogan on the plates.

Of course the DHS does not run speed or red light cameras the way local police in Maryland and DC do.  They only have mobile vans which can look inside your car and covertly scan people in crowds.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

PG County Cameras Issue over $500,000 worth of tickets in first month

The Washington Examiner has reported that Prince George's County's 14 new camera sites have issued $527,000 (13,173 citations) in the first month of their program.  The article compares this to the early phases of Montgomery County's program, which issued 40,000 citations in the first six months.  The county plans to expand the program to a total of 72 sites, just for starters.

The revenue is divided between the county and the contractor, Optotraffic, who receives a 37% cut of every citation.  The per-ticket contract is despite a provision of state law which reads "If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid.".  That provision which has been essentially nullified and is being ignored by almost every speed camera program in the state, simply by claiming that the contractor  (who maintains and substantially controls all the cameras) does not 'operate' the devices.  The first of many restrictions in the law to be circumvented, ignored, or otherwise rendered meaningless.

The county's camera vendor, Optotraffic, has been the target of criticism over claims of inaccuracies in their hardware as well as other issues.  The county claims that their cameras are calibrated regularly (using tests which this site has demonstrated to be meaningless and which were not diligently followed by local governments making the same claims), and that citations are all inspected by police.  However despite these claimed inspections in the first week the program went live the county's cameras erroneously issued citations on a weekend when the devices are legally required to be switched off, with a county spokesperson claiming they were 'improperly programmed by the vendor'. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

PG County's New Speed Camera Issues Erroneous Tickets

After only a few days of issuing tickets, officials in Prince George;s County have already reported their first erroneous speed camera citations.  PG County reported that a speed camera located along the 6800-7800 block of High Bridge Road in Bowie sent out 18 erroneous citations.  Police stated that the problem was not due to a speed measurement error but rather because the device was improperly configured to issue citations on a Sunday.  Under Maryland law 'school zone' speed cameras are authorized to issued tickets M-Fri. (Note: Cameras in Montgomery County and those used in SHA workzones are NOT restricted to week days).

A police spokesperson stated to NBC news 4 "On this particular Sunday, Sunday September 25th there were 18 citations issued incorrectly.  We then reviewed all of them.  We got in touch with the individual drivers, one of them had already paid.  They will be reimbursed.  The rest had their tickets waived".

Under state law, all citations are supposedly inspected and approved by a police officer BEFORE tickets are issued, and all citations contain an (electronically imprinted) signature affirming this.  In the case of these citations apparently did not include checking the date of the violation.  Also under state law speed cameras are supposed to be inspected by a county employee 'daily' who signs a 'daily setup log' to that effect... apparently in this case that inspection did not include looking at a calendar to find out what day of the week it was. The county's speed cameras are provided by their vendor, Optotraffic(a division of Sigma Space Corporation), who maintains the cameras in exchange for a cut of the speed camera revenue from each ticket.

According to NBC News 4, PG County police stated that this was an isolated problem with this one speed camera "improperly programmed by the vendor".  However a spokesperson from AAA Mid Atlantic referred to the many other complains about erroneous citations issued by Optotraffic cameras in the past, complaints which have been disregarded by county officials.

We have previously reported how some municipalities using Optotraffic cameras appear to have taken shortcuts in the operation of their cameras, filling in logs on days operators were apparently not working.  StopBigBrotherMD.org has also previously argued that if certain claims by Optotraffic and county officials are taken at face value, then no meaningful inspection of citations could possibly be taking place.

National Camera News:

Albuquerque, New Mexico has joined the list of communities which has rejected photo enforcement at the ballot box.  In an October 4rth vote, 54% of the 40,000 people voting in the referendum said "NO" to the question asking "Shall the Albuquerque City Council continue authorizing the 'safe traffic operations program,' commonly called the 'red light camera program'?"

The Albuquerque measure was placed on the ballot by a .  The company which runs the red light camera program on the other hand invented a grass roots "Astroturf" campaign supporting the camera program, with Redflex spending $142,050 on a group(the group's entire budget) called "SafeRoads Albuquerque" which sent out mass mailings designed to look like they came from a 'Grass roots' organization. Redflex reportedly changed the name of the group to reveal its relationship to the organization after it was threatened with an ethics complaint.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Forest Heights Speed Camera Defendant Arrested For Asserting Innocence

A defendant in a recent Forest Height speed camera hearing was ordered to be arrested and held in contempt of court for asserting his innocence.  (This post was updated on 10/15/2011.  Please see the courtroom recording added to the end).
The case was heard on Friday September 23rd in Prince George's County district court, more than a year after the citation had been issued.  The defendant was described by several courtroom observers (both defendants and some who were not there to fight citations) as an African American man who had an apparent disability or injury and required two canes for support to walk. His defense was based on the fact that when traveling South on Indian Head Highway entering from Livingston Road, there are no '35mph' signs between the intersection and the camera location.  (StopBigBrotherMD.org has confirmed using Google Street View that it is possible to drive south on I210 towards the cameras without seeing any 35mph speed limit signs, and that on that route the first sign one would see -- which is visible from the location of the cameras enforcing a 35mph limit-- is a 40mph sign located immediately past the camera.)  This defendant and/or others had apparently presented this claim to the town previously, but rather than correct the signage problem Forest Heights chose instead to stand their ground on the signage and come to court with a photo of the 35mph sign located at Aubrey lane, which is located 1/3 mile north of the camera.  There are at least 2 places one can enter route 210 without passing that 35mph sign (a fact the city reportedly did not mention).  After seeing this Judge Gerard Devlin pronounced the defendant guilty, but the defendant wanted to present the rest of his evidence : "After saying I was not guilty, and wanted to talk about my route home that didn't include Aubrey Lane, and that I come down Livingston Terrace and make a right at Livingston Road, and then a left on Indian Head Highway. I had pictures to show that there were no 35 mph signs on that segment of Livingston RD either. He didn't give me this opportunity. He said if I said another word, he would find me in contempt. I said why can't - he said "I find you in contempt - handcuff him and lock him up." I didn't say another word. I was humiliated and embarrassed. The guard was coming with the handcuffs, when I rose from my seat. He noticed that I walked with two canes, and said the handcuffs were not necessary"  ... "The guard walked me to a back room and asked for all  my items except my clothes and shoes. I was taken to a cell that had a bench and a toilet. After I sat down, my canes were taken. "  He was released later the same day.

This incident is the first report StopBigBrotherMD.org has received in over 3 years of reporting of a defendant being arrested or held in contempt over a Maryland speed camera ticket.

Judge Devlin is the same judge who recently made a ruling that defendants could not use citation images to exonerate themselves even if the time-stamped images showed the vehicles were not traveling the recorded speed, even though other judges had previously ruled otherwise.  That decision (which involved a different defendant than the individual in the contempt case), was widely publicized and distributed by Optotraffic and some local speed camera programs which use Optotraffic cameras.

The town issuing the citation disputed in the hearing, Forest Heights, issued over $3million worth of citations in fiscal year 2011, compared with the town's entire budget of $1.7million prior to introducing speed cameras.  Optotraffic(a dicision of Sigma Space Corporation) builds, owns, maintains, and processes violations from the cameras, scheduling court hearings (something which in this and other cases it took them over a year to do), and has been sending a marketing executive to act as an 'expert witness' at those hearings.  Optotraffic receives a percentage cut of the town's ticket revenue, and has a similar arrangement with several other local governments in the area as well as a newly activated speed camera contract with Prince George's County.

Stop Big Brother Maryland often gets information about speed camera hearings from defendants and courtroom observers which we can investigate further.  Anyone with information about interesting 'speed camera day' events should please report them to StopBigBrotherMD@gmail.com.

This posting was originally posted on 9/27 and was updated on 10/1/11 after we received additional information from the defendant.
Google street view shows no 35mph speed limit signage proceeding camera as seen from Livingston Rd Intersection, click to enlarge
Google Street View shows that a 40mph sign can be seen from the camera site, the camera enforces a 35mph limit, click to enlarge
Signage on Indian Head Highway, click to enlarge

Update 10/15/2011: We have obtained the audio recording of the court hearing.  In the recording you can hear Judge Devin order the defendant, James Bradford (a 71 year old poet), put into handcuffs and threaten him with 6 months in jail for asserting that he was not speeding.