Thursday, April 4, 2013

House Committee Grandfathers In Bounty System Contracts, Rejects Speed Verification

With just five days left in this year's legislative session, the House Environmental Matters Committee has approved a speed camera "reform" bill which grandfathers in existing per-ticket contingent fee speed camera contracts for more than a year.  The Environmental Matters committee has blocked other speed camera reform bills which would have required that citations include a means of verifying recorded speeds after the fact, and also voted down a measure which would have repealed speed cameras.

The bill, sponsored by Committee Vice Chair Malone, clarifies a provision of existing law banning the practice of paying speed camera contractors based on the number of tickets issued.  Existing law already states that "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 rule is currently being broken with impunity by local governments who claim that they, not the contractors who own and substantially control the machines, "operate" the system.  Even Governor O'Malley has stated that the many existing contingent fee contracts, including contracts in Montgomery and Prince George's County and Baltimore City violate the intent of state law.  A circuit court judge recently ruled that Baltimore County's contingent fee contract was illegal.

This bill would modify the language of this provision to include contractors which "in any way operate" speed cameras or "administer or process violations".  However it would grandfather in all of the dozens of existing illegal contingent fee contracts, and allow them to continue paying the contingent fees for years to come.  Since the new law would not go into effect until October of this year, local governments might still be able to sign new long term contingent fee contracts, or possibly amend them with extended option years, allowing them if they choose to continue paying on a per-ticket basis for at least several more years, perhaps even indefinitely.

[  UPDATE 4/6/13: The House has relented to pressure from the public and press on one issue: 
An amendment was added after the bill left committee to require contracts to comply with the new terms by October 14, 2014, allowing existing per-ticket contracts to stay in effect for another 21 months.  However the bill still does not include secondary evidence of speed nor does it actually address the issue that originally prompted the legislation: the fact that some speed cameras have been found to be inaccurate.  The bill in now in the Senate. ]

A bill, sponsored by Senator Jim Brochin, which would have ended the bounty system had already passed the Senate.  However Committee Vice Chair Malone has made clear that no speed camera bill other than his own would make it out of the committee this year, and Brochin's Bill has since been amended to be identical to Malone's Bill..

The House Committee also rejected a credible reform bill sponsored by Delegate John Cardin, which would have required recorded images to provide evidence of speed.  Systematic errors recently admitted to by Baltimore City and Xerox Corp were discovered only because the city had imprinted citations with precise timestamps and because video recordings of violations were available to citation recipients.  Most other jurisdictions, including the SHA and many citations issued in Montgomery County, deliberately round citation image timestamps off to the second, making them 100% useless for the purpose of verifying speed.

Without verifiable evidence of speed, a defective speed camera could pass all of its calibration tests and still issue erroneous citations (just like the ones in Baltimore City), and there would be no way for ticket recipients or anyone else to prove it.  Had there been no secondary evidence of speed in Baltimore City, it is likely the faulty hardware would still be in use today issuing tickets to innocent drivers claiming they were traveling twice the speed limit in a school zone, and putting professional drivers at risk of being fired for a violation they did not commit.  Officials in Baltimore City were aware of errors with their cameras for many months before they were eventually forced to publicly admit to them.

The use of timestamps to verify speed is included in standards set by the NHTSA: "2.18.2 Unattended Operation. If the ATR device is to be considered for unattended operation, the manufacturer shall provide a secondary method for verifying that the evidential recorded image properly identifies the target vehicle and reflects this vehicle’s true speed, as described in §5.18.2. This may be accomplished by means of a second, appropriately delayed image showing the target vehicle crossing a specified reference line."
This standard however is not followed in Maryland., because they don't want the public or the press to have the ability to fact check recorded speeds.

Experts have stated that using detailed timestamps is the best way to verify speed after the fact and avoid errors.  Jin Kang, chairman of the electrical and computer engineering department at the Johns Hopkins University, stated to the Baltimore Sun: "From the engineering and scientific perspective, I don't know why they're fighting it," the professor said. "They have the information. Why not provide it?"

The Sun also quoted Christopher Davis, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park: "I am surprised that the SHA thinks calculation of speed from time-stamped photographs is complex," he said. "Any of my students could do this calculation."   Professor Davis had testified in support of Senator Brochin's bill:  "Radar, which is generally used by speed cameras, is especially subject to errors because of its wide beam, and its measurements can be disturbed by reflections, nearby large vehicles, and other vehicles moving within the radar systems’ field of view." Stated Davis to a Senate Committee, "It is important to assure the public that the citations they receive as a result of a speed camera observation are accurate and fair. The only truly fair way to use speed cameras is to provide accurate time-stamped photographs of a vehicle showing that it has moved a known distance in a precisely measured time interval.

Of course we at the Maryland Drivers Alliance know the reason why so many speed camera agencies are fighting this:  
They believe Baltimore City's real mistake was allowing the public and the press to have too much information, and they are TERRIFIED that errors will be discovered in other speed camera programs.
In fact they are willing to deny defendants access to evidence (the real interval between citation images) and ensure that defendants face a total presumption of guilty to prevent this from happening.  As such local and state agencies have been spending your tax dollars in a desperate lobbying effort to prevent such legislation from passing.

Secondary evidence of speed could have been accomplished in several ways.  The images could simply add precise timestamps or a 'delta time between images'.  Measurements could be facilitated either by painting lines on the road, possibly only two lines indicating the distance a vehicle should have traveled if it had been going 12mph over the limit.  Or it could be facilitated by digitally imposing a 'template' or 'ruler' on citation images which could be used for the evaluation.  Alternately, the citations could contain a link to a short, low resolution video clip like the ones which identified the errors in Baltimore City.  These ideas were all rejected out of hand by the committee and by existing speed camera programs, because they are scared of what will happen if people have access to this type of evidence.

Malone's "reform" bill would local governments to designate an "ombudsman" who would be authorized to void erroneous citations without a hearing.  However since the bill which the committee approved does not require any secondary evidence of speed, and does not substantially improve the requirements for certifying and testing equipment, there would be no proof of errors like the ones which occurred in Baltimore for the "ombudsman" to examine.  So for example a corrupt local government like Forest Heights would be free to do what they have done in the past: conduct a cover-up and deny all errors.  With no requirement for secondary evidence of speed, there is no reason to think having an agency which profits from cameras designate an ombudsman would really change anything or that this isn't simply a 'feel good' measure designed to serve as "PR fluff" for the state's speed camera programs. 

Malone's bill will now go to the House of Delegates for a vote, and the Environmental Matters Committee has decreed that the house shall not be allowed to consider any other reform bills which include secondary evidence, a timely end to the bounty system contracts, or requiring stricter standards for testing.  The new bill would need to make its way through both the House and Senate in just five days, leaving little time for the public to analyze its new provisions or to comment on them.

The House of Delegates will now decide whether to amend this bill and turn it into a real reform bill which protects the rights of the innocent by including secondary evidence of speed, and ends the bounty system FOR REAL by REQUIRING local governments to change their contracts.  Or they may pass a half measure designed to let them claim to the public they have reformed the law, when in fact nothing much will have changed.  Or quite possibly, with only five days left in the session, they may simply run the clock out and pass nothing at all... allowing pro-speed camera lawmakers to all claim they supported reform when they knew full well they were not going to pass anything in the end.

Because that is how things work in Annapolis.

Find your Maryland State Representatives Here
Additional Coverage:
Baltimore Sun