Friday, February 1, 2013

Some Lawmakers Want to Weaken Ticket Review Requirements

In the wake of the irrefutable proof that speed camera contractor Xerox Corp systematically issued faulty  camera citations to innocent motorist in Baltimore, there has been much buzz about the possibility of legislation which would be enacted to reform the state's requirements for speed cameras to help protect the innocent.  While some lawmakers have sponsored real reform bills, others legislators will have none of that and are instead sponsoring legislation designed to weaken an existing protection in the law.

Senate Bill 389 would remove  the requirement that police officers review speed camera citations, and allow cities to hire private contactors to approve tickets instead.  The bill's sponsors are senators
Jamie Raskin(D, Montgomery County), Jennie Forehand(D, Montgomery County),and Jim Rosapepe (D, Prince George's and Anne Arundel Counties).  The legislation is largely being pushed by the governments of cities of Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Greenbelt.


This same legislation was submitted last year, and actually passed in the Senate before being stalled in the House.  We argued at the time that is would eliminate one of the key protections promised to the public when statewide speed cameras were passed.  These three senators clearly do not care about that.  We argued that the only reason this was being discussed was that some local governments felt they could marginally increase their revenues by hiring cheaper employees or contractors to rubber stamp tickets, which was supported by statements in legislative priority documents from the City of Rockville (indeed the city of Rockville repeated this in their legislative priorities for 2013, pointing out that civilian employees could be paid far less than police)  And we argued it would result in less accountability by local governments.

The law would specifically allow private contractors to perform the review (as is clearly stated in the text of the bill), and could quite possibly be the same contractor who runs the camera, or the task might be farmed out to a separate contractor on a lowest bidder who would promise to rubber stamp tickets on the cheap.

Unfortunately, we were forced to catch two of the sponsors of last year's Bill in a lie, when they tried to falsely claim that the bill would not allow private contractors to approve tickets.

One would think that the situation in Baltimore City by itself would prove that what is required, given that it was proven that the largest municipal speed camera program in the state was dogged with problems and erroneous citations,  was at some locations systematically issuing 1 in 20 citations to innocent motorists based on false speed readings, left faulty cameras online for months after problems were known, and even issued speeding tickets to motionless vehicles.  One would think this shows that local governments should be required to exhibit MORE, not LESS responsibility.  This is of course lost on Senators Raskin, Forehand, and Roseppe.  No no no... we don't need stricter standards for the cameras... money from the innocent is the same as money from the guilty, and that the motorists who might be falsely accused under the new more lax requirements should just suck it up and pay!

The most laughable thing about this bill is this part:
"IF A CONTRACTOR OPERATES A WORK ZONE SPEED CONTROL SYSTEM FOR A POLICE DEPARTMENT, THE PERSON AUTHORIZED UNDER SUBSECTION (D)(1)(VIII) OF THIS SECTION TO SIGN A STATEMENT THAT THE MOTOR VEHICLE WAS BEING OPERATED IN VIOLATION OF THIS SUBTITLE MAY NOT RECEIVE ANY PART OF THE PERSON’S SALARY OR ANY OTHER PAYMENT FOR SERVICES FROM THE CONTRACTOR."
No doubt the sponsors intend to deceive the public and their fellow lawmakers into believing this to mean that those who review tickets cannot be paid per ticket.  However if so that would not be the case.  The sponsors of this bill are ALL aware by now of this particular language in current law: "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 is currently being violated with impunity by nearly every local speed camera program in the state, including Baltimore and Montgomery County, who claim that the contractor does not "operate" the device and then pay their contractor based on the number of tickets issued.  StopBigBrotherMD emailed the sponsors of the bill and asked them to explain how it would be different with the provision in your bill, but received no reply by the time of this writing.

In addition, even if that 'loophole' were not being exploited for the contract which runs the cameras, there is nothing to prevent the agency from hiring a DIFFERENT contractor than the 'operator', and then paying them based on how many tickets they rubber stamp.   And even if you were to take the per-ticket bounties out of the picture, allowing contractors to review tickets could still place records pertaining to review processes outside the bounds of the Maryland Public Information Act, in the same way which some speed camera programs in the state have at times tried to claim that documents such as calibration records for cameras were not subject to the MPIA because they were in the custody of their contractor.  At various times local governments including Laurel, New Carrollton, Prince George's County, and Baltimore City have ALL at one time or another attempted to conceal records they were legally required to keep 'on file' were in the custody of a contractor.  There is no reason to believe they would NOT take advantage of this proposed change  in the law to conceal additional records if they felt the revelation of those documents would be embarrassing.

Another particularly absurd claim made by Senator Raskin, is that the individuals doing the sign offs would actually be more technically skilled with speed cameras than police.  The City of Rockville stated that civilian photo enforcement employees would be paid less than half what a police officer makes.  What sort of advanced technical skills or knowledge or radar do you suppose a city would get for less than half of a police officer's salary?  They would simply be hiring the cheapest, LEAST SKILLED person they could find to do the job, since there would be no requirement for any more than that.

Some local governments, such as Riverdale Park, have already chosen to flout the existing requirement.  Riverdale Park no only allowing civilians to review tickets, but then proceeding to forge the name of a police officer who was on leave at the time and who never reviewed the citations.  To this day Riverdale has yet to present any evidence disputing the charge, and has instead been attempting to hide behind 'government immunity' to avoid consequences.   If this is the attitude of those who run speed camera programs, then Senate Bill 389 is exactly the opposite of what is needed.  The requirements for citation review should be strengthened, and then local governments who are found to be in violation of the provisions of the law should face penalties.

The idea that citations were to be reviewed by police was one of the promises made to the public when statewide speed cameras were passed. Revoking that provision would prove lawmakers view speed cameras as an 'administrative function' for the purpose of collecting revenue and maximizing profits, rather than a law enforcement function which rightfully is the responsibility of police.


The sponsors of this bill are by no means the only obstacles that those who would wish to fix the state's defective speed camera law would have to get past.  One of the many examples would be Delegate Kirill Reznik(D, Montgomery County), who happens to represent the district which the editor of StopBigBrotherMD.org lives in.  In a prior year when Mister Reznik was presented with information about erroneous citations and abuses of the law, he responded in a particularly condescending manner about his support for speed cameras, and stated his position that "The law itself is fine", and indicating that he felt no need or responsibility to correct problems with the statewide speed camera law which he voted for.  When confronted with the new information and questions about the situation in Baltimore City, the forgery and fraud in Riverdale Park, problems with the SHA's speed camera certification, and per-ticket bounties, Mister Reznik repeated his "strong support" for speed cameras, did not answer some basic questions about his position on specific speed camera issues which have been recently raised in the state, did not actually acknowledge that he believes the problems exist, and merely stated that if changes to the law make it through committee he would "make a decision on how to vote based on my analysis".  That sort of utter indifference towards the rights of motorists, towards the real problem of false accusations against innocent motorists, and towards the matter of violations of the law by state and local government agencies  is, in the opinion of StopBigBrotherMD.org, FAR too commonplace in the state legislature.

Unfortunately there are many state lawmakers who believe their duty is to support the political establishment, and who believe their "constituents" are local governments which profit from cameras.... not actual voters, citizens, and certainly not "drivers".  We call on our readers to contact your state lawmakers and ask them:
    Do you believe that given the recent revelations in Baltimore City, the current law on speed cameras is "just fine"?
    Do you believe that the per-ticket bounties which are currently being paid by numerous speed camera programs to their contractors are in keeping with the letter and spirit of state law?
    Do you believe the SHA was right to circumvent independent calibration requirements for speed cameras specified in state law?  Do you think their explanation holds water?
    Do you believe there are adequate protections for the innocent under the current speed camera law?
    Do you believe state lawmakers bear some responsibility for how the laws they helped to create are implemented?
    Are you prepared to support legislation to protect the rights of motorists?

In addition, residents of the cities of Gaithersburg and Rockville should realize that your city councils are actively pushing for SB389 and are spending you tax dollars to lobby against your interests (interestingly enough, Gaithersburg's other legislative priorities include weakening requirements under state ethics laws and requirements for notification requirements, and Rockville's include imposing new late fees on camera tickets).  Write to your city council members and tell them this is unacceptable, and that you want them to STOP spending YOUR money supporting legislation which weakens protections in the law.

Right now, those who profit from cameras, and the lawmakers who think those are the ones they represent, are doing everything in their power not only to ensure that repeal of speed cameras will never get off the ground, not only to prevent reforms designed to protect the innocent from cutting into their future revenues, but also to push the line in entirely the wrong direction.  It is up to YOU, The People, to stand up to them.

UPDATE:  A Hear is now scheduled for this speed camera bill in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on February 20 at 1pm.