Thursday, March 27, 2014

Opinion: Is 'Reform in Name Only' Really 'Better Than Nothing'?

Lawmakers are busy praising their own handiwork on so-called "reform" legislation, which we have criticized as being worthless at protecting the legal rights of motorists and correcting the major problems that have been identified in the implementation of Maryland's speed camera law.

Obviously lawmakers are more impressed by their efforts than we are.  This is not surprising since the primary sponsor of the house bill, Delegate Malone, doesn't even think there are serious, fundamental problems with the state's current law in the first place.  If the sponsors are more concerned with protecting speed camera programs from having to make changes than in actually requiring them to change for the better, how can the bill really be expected to bring change?

Those of us who have criticized the bill as being ineffective and loaded with so many loopholes as to have no meaning whatsoever were simply told "it's better than nothing", that this was "the best they could do".   We beg to differ. Such a statement presumes that this bill truly represents an honest effort to provide something we have asked for.  It does not.  The statement also presumes that nothing better was possible, when in fact better bills were offered, and that no credible amendments that would have made it better at little cost were ignored.  That isn't the case either.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Public Records Reform Legislation Gutted

Last week (March 16-22) was "National Sunshine Week", an event which promotes the importance of open government and freedom of information.  To celebrate the occasion, a Maryland legislative committee gutted a bill which would have provided new oversight and greatly enhanced the Maryland Public Information Act (Maryland's equivalent of the FOIA).

We previously wrote about the bill, which would have created an public information compliance board, which would have provided a practical means of appeals if access to public records was obstructed by a local or state agency.  The bill had strong support from organizations representing the press and civil liberties groups, and no organizations appeared to speak in opposition to the bill at the committee hearing.  The fiscal policy notes for the bill concluded the committee could be established using existing resources (ie, the cost to taxpayers would have been essentially nothing).

True to form, the "Health And Government Operations" committee chose to amend the bill, blowing away it's entire contents and instead resolving to merely conduct a study on the matter and think about the issue.  The amended and now essentially impotent bill then passed the House with ease.
A Model in "How To Kill A Good, Popular Bill Without Having To Go On Record Against It"
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are looking forward to their 15.7% pay raise for the bang-up job they have been doing.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Prince George's Police Warn of False Camera Ticket Scam Attempts

Prince George's County police are warning of a scam where people have received phone calls from someone posing as a police officer, according to a report on MyFoxDC.  The scammer tells the victim they've failed to appear in court for a red light or speed camera ticket. The intended victims were then instructed to go to a local store and pay a fine, or else a warrant could be issued.

The county police have issued a consumer alert and posted the following to the PGPD facebook page: 
"Please know that the PGPD and other law enforcement agencies do not make phone calls requesting citizens bring payments to a business, nor do we arrest for this civil offense. All payments are handled by mail or through a website as listed on the tickets. If you receive a phone call from anyone asking you to pay a red light camera or any other ticket, please call the Prince George’s County Police Department Automated Traffic Enforcement office at (301) 955-0790 during business hours or call 911."

Bills to Regulate License Plate Scanners Sit In Committees

As the legislative session nears a close, bills which would regulate the use of automated license plate scanners are awaiting decisions by committees in both the Senate and House of Delegates.

The bipartisan sponsored bills (SB 699 and HB 289) are designed to limit the use of and storage of information captured by automated license plate readers (ALPR).  ALPR systems can capture the license plate number of every passing vehicle and store it in a searchable database.  The devices are now commonly used by police throughout the state of Maryland.

ALPR systems came under scrutiny last year when the ACLU reported how the use of devices to record the movements of millions of motorists not convicted of any crime.  The ACLU documented how the movements of innocents motorists were being recorded with impunity, and shared with both government and private databases, with few restrictions on how long it could be retained.  In most cases agencies do not report where this recording is taking place.  In Maryland, the ACLU found that in a five month period of time agencies recorded 1 million license plate, only 0.2% resulted in "hits", almost all of which were for expired registrations.  Of the "hits", only 47 (0.0047%) were associated with a serious offense being investigated, and "Furthermore, even these 47 alerts may not have helped the police catch criminals prevent crimes" since the people on the search lists may not have been involved in any present wrongdoing.  The vast majority of collected information was for people not suspected of any offense whatsoever.

Additional concerns were raised when in February it was revealed that the Department of Homeland Security was planning to create a national license plate database.  After receiving substantial criticism from the press, the agency declared that it was canceling the proposal, however critics have argued that the supposed "cancellation" of the plan is irrelevant since the existence of privately run national databases is already a reality, and the DHS has for years already been accessing this rapidly growing system.

The Boston Globe cited examples of how license plate data had the potential to be misused.  In 2005 a Canadian city's police database was improperly used to target a local newspaper columnist in an unsuccessful sting attempt after he had written critical of the city's photo enforcement systems.  In 2006 and 2007 the NYPD used ALPR scanners to record worshipers visiting mosques, under a program sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Agency.   Washington Post cited an example from 1998 where a DC police officer plead guilty to collecting license plate numbers outside a gay bar and attempting to extort money from the club's visitors.  The ACLU noted last year that Virginia has placed ALPR systems outside political rallies.

The proposed bills would forbid law enforcement agencies from retaining captured license plate data (GPS system coordinates, dates and times, photographs of vehicles, and license plate numbers of vehicles) for longer than 30 days unless they were involved in a specific law enforcement investigation, and forbids the sharing of this data except with another law enforcement agency when it is associated with a specific offense.
While this as a fairly weak restriction, the current situation is that there are no restrictions whatsoever on how the scanners can be used or how the data may be shared.  But with only a few days left in the session and neither committee having approved a version of the bill, passage of any legislation on ALPR systems this year is becoming unlikely.

UPDATE 4/1/2014: An amended version of this bill has since passed the Senate and is awaiting approval by the House.  The amended version removed many of the provisions of the original bill, including limitations on the time which captured plate data may be retained.

Additional Reading:
Washington Post: A few reasons the public might care about license-plate tracking
Electronic Freedom Foundation: National License Plate Recognition Database: What It Is and Why It’s a Bad Idea
ACLU: Setting the record straight on DHS and license plate tracking
ACLU: Virginia State Police Used License Plate Readers At Political Rallies, Built Huge Database

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

House Passes Poo Polishing Bill

The General Assembly continues their efforts to show that they are "reforming" Maryland's speed camera law while actually doing nothing, as a speed camera bill sponsored by James Malone and other members of the House Environmental Matters Committee has cleared the House.  True to form, the Environmental Matters Committee has given HB929 bill a new name, "The Speed Camera Reform Bill of 2014", as politicians believe that what you call something changes what it is.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance on the other hand knows that the bill does not do many of the things the sponsors promise and is loaded down with loopholes, ineffectual language, and false promises just waiting to be broken.

Calls for reform were brought about due to revelations that Baltimore City and their contractor had systematically issued erroneous citations to thousands of drivers, even ticketing stationary vehicles.  A recent "secret" audit leaked to the Baltimore Sun indicated error rates as high as 10% and that as many as 70,000 erroneous tickets may have been issued in one year.  In addition, there have been calibration problems in places like Hagerstown, Greenbelt, and Salisbury, as well as claims of other errors in Morningside and Wicomico County.  Statewide, there have been systematic concerns with the implementation of the law, such as the fact that speed camera programs have violated promises that contractors would not be paid based on the number of citations, using a loophole invented by Montgomery County, which even Governor O'Malley has stated violates the intent of state law.

Last year and again this year the legislature was presented with proposals for fixing the law, some of which were fairly credible.  Yet the bill the House of Delegates settled on doesn't fix any of this.  We won't dignify HB929 by calling it "reform".  There is a more appropriate term for what the legislature is doing: Polishing Poop.

If the average person could have seen the many examples of abuse close up like we have, we feel that most would agree with us that Maryland's speed camera law is a failure and should be repealed.  However we are not complaining for complaining sake.  We did support other reform bills which were designed to actually fix the worst problems we have seen.  In 2012 we supported a credible reform bill sponsored by Delegate McComas (R, Harford County).  In 2013 we supported another well written reform bill sponsored by Senator Brochin (D, Baltimore County), before it was mauled by the legislature.  This year we again supported a bill sponsored by Delegate Jon Cardin (D, Baltimore County), which would have addressed many of our most serious concerns.  Any one of those would have been a better place to start.  The leadership of the environmental matters committee stopped all those bills cold.  In fact this year Malone arrogantly stated at the beginning of the speed camera hearing before any testimony was given that only his own bill would be allowed to pass, and that their committee already knew all there was to know about speed cameras.  Nevertheless we did try to be constructive, providing reams of written testimony and proposing several amendments which you can see here, all of which were completely ignored by the committee.

The bill, while passed in the House, must still pass the senate and be signed by the governor before it becomes law, and could still be amended to make more meaningful changes... if the legislature is so inclined.
Unfortunately the authors of this bill believe that there is nothing fundamental wrong with the way the current system works, and think the only thing they need to do is "change the public's perception" of speed camera programs.  How could they possibly be credible agents for change.That is why this bill is nothing but smoke and mirrors.  Not only is this bill written without regard for what the critics of the programs have called for, it almost appears to have been written to spite those who have been calling for real reform for years.

----------------OUR ANALYSIS OF THE BILL'S PROVISIONS----------------
* Malone claims the bill will "end the bounty system" but all they have done is replace one loophole with two.  They will allow any system "based on the number of tickets".  O'Malley's statement regarding the CURRENT law was: "The law says you're not supposed to charge by volume. I don't think we should charge by volume, If any county is, they need to change their program."  That is what "ending the bounty system" means.  It does not mean permitting:
- payments on "batches" of tickets
- ticket quotas
- Semantic games like this
All of those things would be permitted under the specific wording deliberately chosen for HB 929.  There was simple language in other bills which could have closed this loophole, which has been pointed out to the bill sponsors, and rejected  PROVING it IS their intent to allow such nonsense.   In addition, HB 929 grandfathers in existing contracts for the next three years so local governments can wait until everyone has forgotten the promises to exercise the new loophole.  The Environmental Matters Committee even amended it to give them until May 31 to lock in new contracts which will then be grandfathered in under the old loopholes as well.

* The bill does not solve the problem of errors which raised calls for errors in the first place because the bill does not require that there be any means to identify speed measurement errors after the fact.  Simple proposals were offered to provide the means to identify errors, and were included in other reform bills. but these were all rejected out of hand.  The bill sponsors are apparently terrified that more errors might be proven if secondary evidence of speed were required.

* Malone's bill actually writes into law that anything up to a 5% rate of erroneous ticket is OK (1 in 20).   For a program the size of Montgomery County's or Baltimore's that would mean that having more than 15,000 false accusations per year would be considered acceptable by law.  Even that is according to a narrow definition which only includes citations which the agency agrees are errors -- for example a citation voided by the court is specifically not allowed to be called an error.  In addition, the 5% "acceptable" rate of errors must be across the entire program.  Baltimore city found itself in a PR disaster when it was acknowledged they had a 5% rate of errors for just a few cameras.  It is unlikely that even an utterly incompetent program would ever hit the threshold defined in the law as unacceptable, without independent auditing.  Even then the "consequences" of hitting this threshold are quite mild unless the agency wants to exercise an option to end their contract, something they probably could have done anyways without this bill.

* The SHA's program is completely exempt from Malone's bill.  It doesn't apply to them at all because the SHA's program is under a different statute unaffected by HB 929.

* The cornerstone of Malone's bill, which they claim fixes everything, is to require someone within the programs to be designated to respond to complaints.  It is modeled after a so-called "ombudsman" in Montgomery County.  However that person is really Montgomery's program manager, he is loyal to the program not the people.  Montgomery County's so called "ombudsman" has only ever voided a handful of citations, and has never ordered a refund for a "systematic" problem, nor have we seen any indication that he has ever taken a position contrary to official county policy.  Few people even know how to contact this person, and the bill does not require that the right to complain to this person actually be prominently displayed, so it is likely the designee would receive few complaints.  The reality is this provision will only mean assigning a public relations role to an existing staff member.

* One of the big things people called for was audits, Malone even said they would add "auditing".  Yet the bill does NOT use the term "audit".  What they have proposed is nothing like the audit which took place in Baltimore.  They wouldn't look at citations for signs of errors and they would not look at calibration records.  They'd just report a few random bits of easily sanitized trivia and claim everything is OK.

* The bill makes it so that contractors can operate and test equipment, and allows "operators" employed by the government to simply "rubber stamp" the results.  Right now in some jurisdictions (such as Montgomery County) it is already not possible for defendants to cross examine speed camera "operators".  So this may actually make matters WORSE from a due process and legal rights perspective.

* The bill does require each speed camera program to report a set of trivial facts to the state each year, something the sponsors will no doubt attempt to pass off as an "audit".  However the bill rightly does not use the word "audit" to describe this, and it is not an audit at all.  An agency cannot audit themselves.  It does nothing to search for errors the way the Baltimore City audit which uncovered errors, and does not actually look at things like calibration records, daily setup logs, or compliance with other aspects of state law.  The way it is worded appears to be designed to avoid uncovering either errors or calibration problems.  It appears to be designed to present a favorable picture of each program, since the only "errors" it would report are those the local governments WANT to admit to, and many classes of errors such as those uncovered in court, without making it possible for any outside party to check their facts.
We have tried to reach out to the sponsors of HB929 to get them to understand the problems we have with this bill.  You can read our proposed amendments and read about the other bills we have supported to decide for yourself whether we trying to be reasonable and constructive.  We think we have been.  The sponsors of HB929 know what the problems are already, and we believe they are simply refusing to fix them because they are afraid some speed camera programs might become marginally less profitable as a result.  This bill is not about reforming.... it is about obstructing reform.

The thing that the authors of HB 929 do not "get" is that the single biggest problem with Maryland's speed camera law right now is that every single motorist in the state is at the mercy of every one of the 40 local speed camera programs.  Even if a motorist were to conclude that some local governments are completely trustworthy, they are still left having to similarly trust Morningside and Forest Heights and Baltimore and every other county or municipality to also be both fully competent and free of corruption.... even if history does not support such a leap of faith.

That lack of outside oversight and outside recourse is the core reason there have been so many broken promises. Yet HB 929's primary sponsor (Delegate Malone) has OPENLY STATED that he is just fine with that and that he thinks if there is a problem with a municipal speed camera program it is up to the municipality, and that people should not bring their complaints to the state legislature.  How can you count on someone to reform a system when that person doesn't think there is anything wrong with it?  That is why this bill doesn't "fix" anything.  Apparently 70,000 false accusations -- amounting to an "industrial scale" miscarriage of justice -- requires nothing more than "changing public perception" in response.

So Malone and his co-sponsors refuse to consider any real fixes, ignore all the real problems, and would rather "pain't it, polish it, make it shine" without changing what the law really is... and assume the voters are too stupid or uninformed to realize it.  The bottom line is they can shine this all they want, but it's still a piece of $#|+.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Baltimore Sun: Committee Looking At 10,000 Pages of Speed Camera Documents

The Baltimore Sun reports on a huge investigation taking place into Baltimore's former speed camera program:
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration has turned over more than 10,000 pages of documents to a City Council committee conducting a wide-ranging investigation into Baltimore's speed camera program. 
Councilman James B. Kraft, chairman of the committee, said he's received 10,000 to 12,000 pages of documents. He believes the mayor may turn over far more, he said.
In February, Kraft delivered a letter to Rawlings-Blake seeking 31 batches of documents involving nearly all aspects of the once-lucrative cameras, which have been offline since last spring. His letter sought documents pertaining to former speed camera contractors Xerox State & Local Solution and Brekford Corp., as well as consultants URS Corp. and Century Engineering. Among the 31 categories of documents sought are "all investigative reports" into the cameras' accuracy rates.
The council has authorized an investigation into circumstances behind a secret speed camera audit, which was commissioned by the administration and completed last April but never released. The study, a copy of which was obtained by The Baltimore Sun, found error rates in city speed cameras much higher than city officials have acknowledged 
 Baltimore Inspector General Robert H. Pearre Jr. has also launched what he called a "comprehensive investigation" into the city's troubled speed camera program.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Opinion: Public Information Act Oversight Badly Needed

The Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) is one of the cornerstones of open government in this state, and it is one of the few tools available to citizens and the press allowing access to information.  Regardless of what issues you care about, the integrity of government requires that citizens have access to information about the activities of state and local government agencies.  In theory, the MPIA law provides broad rights of access to a wide variety public records with only a limited number of specific exemptions.

In practice however, matters can be quite different.  Many agencies have learned that there are numerous ways they can delay, obstruct, or deter requests for records which they, for whatever reason, do not wish to release.  In some cases agencies may deny a request and claim an exemption to disclosure.  But more commonly agencies will demand excessive fees, deny the existence of records, or in a few cases simply ignore a request completely.  Even though the law nominally requires a custodian to provide "immediate" access to many records and requires the release of records in no more than 30 days in any case, we have found that MOST agencies consider the 30 day period to instead constitute a minimum mandatory waiting period.  Indeed we have witnessed various forms of noncompliance with the MPIA first hand over and over again, by local governments all across the state.

One of the reasons this can occur because there is no oversight from the state of agency compliance with the MPIA.  The Attorney General publishes a manual on the MPIA, which lays out individual rights and agency responsibilities under the act.  However under Doug Gansler this agency has disavowed any responsibility for enforcing the act or investigating noncompliance.  A requester does have the right to file for "judicial review" in circuit court.  However going to court for any reason is an expensive, complicated, and risky proposition.  Government agencies can utilize taxpayer funded legal resources to defend a denial or the use of obstructive tactics, and incurring the costs of going up against an opponent with those kinds of resources is not a practical option for most ordinary citizens or even some media organizations. Agencies know they face little risk of penalties if a defendant prevails.  Agencies know full well that the time it takes to resolve a complaint in court could easily render documents useless for the purpose they were originally requested for.  Indeed the editor of this site was forced to file for judicial review over two obstructed MPIA requests last year, it has now been six months, and the end is still not imminent.

This year a bill was submitted to the state legislature which would create a "Public Information Act Compliance Board".  The bill (House Bill 658) is sponsored by Delegates Jill Carter, Glen Glass, Michael Hough, Neil Parrott, and Mike Smigiel.  It is modeled after the Open Meetings Compliance board, which oversees the other portion of the state's "sunshine law" that requires public meetings to be open.  Such a board would provide a viable option for appeal.  The fiscal policy notes describe the bill's purpose:
This bill establishes the State Public Information Act Compliance Board to (1) receive, review, and resolve complaints from any person alleging that a custodian either denied inspection of a public record or charged an unreasonable fee of more than $500 to obtain  the record; (2) issue a written opinion as to whether a violation has occurred; and (3) order the custodian to either produce the public record for inspection or reduce the fee amount to an amount the board determines to be reasonable and refund the difference. The bill also requires the board to (1) adopt regulations to carry out the bill; (2) study ongoing compliance with the bill by custodians; (3) make recommendations to the General Assembly for improvements to the bill’s provisions; and (4) submit an annual report to the Governor and General Assembly by October 1 of each year.
This approach would be far more cost effective and practical for both requester and agencies than having to go to court.  Indeed the fiscal policy notes for the bill state that "local finances will not be materially affected" and that the OAG could support the board's activities with existing staff.

The website ranked Maryland 40th out of 50 for corruption risk, giving us a grade of "D-" overall and an "F" for "Public Access to Information".  That is unacceptable by any standard.  Maryland residents should demand far more openness from state and local government agencies, and passage of House Bill 658 would be an excellent step in that direction.

Additional Coverage:
Baltimore Sun: Bring Sunshine to Maryland
Delmarva Now: Md. Lawmakers consider forming public information act oversight
Frederick Post: Enabling the public's right to know

Monday, March 10, 2014

Baltimore Knew of More Problems than Previously Reported

The City of Baltimore experienced more errors in its currently mothballed speed camera program than were previously reported, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The Sun reports that in March of 2013, Baltimore issued a speed camera ticket to a bus company with one of its buses clocked going 42mph on Harford Road.  The city voided the ticket after concluding the vehicle's speed had only actually been 26mph.

The internal city documents, which the Sun described as having been "leaked", revealed other problems as well:
In addition to the misprogrammed camera and inaccurate P.O. box, the report notes that about 100 tickets were issued with “repeated images and timestamps,” making them invalid. There were also “a few erroneous citations,” including one that showed two different cars in the pair of photos meant to show a speeding vehicle’s movement. 
The same document stated that Brekford’s data “had continuous errors, missing or transposed information,” that information in the company’s system “keeps changing” and that 474 red light camera tickets somehow appeared in the system as speed camera tickets. 
A separate PowerPoint presentation showed that as of April 15 — a day before the city announced the camera program’s suspension — city officials had noticed discrepancies in Brekford’s own data. 
The issue was noted again in a May 7 memo marked “privileged and confidential” and addressed to Rawlings-Blake and top aides. It said the Department of Transportation “expressed a lack of confidence in the Brekford data due to 30,000 events missing from iP360 reports,” it said. Brekford’s system is called iP360. Every time a camera records a car it’s considered an event.
The errors occurred in early 2013 after Baltimore City ended their contract with Xerox Corporation, amid report of errors (including tickets being given to stationary vehicles), and began a new contract with speed camera contractor Brekford Corp.  However the program was suspended shortly thereafter amid revelations of new errors.  Baltimore has since ended their contract with Brekford as well.

Some Police Still Won't Allow Themselves to be Photographed

A Baltimore City police officer "forcibly escorted" Baltimore Sun photographer Chris Assaf away from the scene of a police involved shooting after he was observed photographing police activities.  The incident was documented by another Baltimore Sun reporter, and the Sun has posted photos of the incident online (the Sun warns that some photos may be graphic).

The Sun noted how they had reported on previous incidents where first amendment rights had been infringed on with respect to photographing police:
A recent event brought this close to home when Baltimore Sun photo editor Chris Assaf was confronted by a Baltimore City police officer at the scene of a police-involved shooting. The incident happened in close proximity to The Sun at the intersection of Centre Street and Guilford Avenue, so Assaf was able to respond quickly to the scene.
While photographing outside the police tape — which marked the established perimeter — an officer broke the tape and told him he would have to move across the street. Assaf protested, stating he was outside the established perimeter of the crime scene and he had every right to photograph from where he was standing.
While asking for the officer’s name, a second police officer grabbed Assaf and began pushing him across the street. Assaf on numerous occasions requested that the officer release him, saying that his rights were being violated. Baltimore Sun photographer Lloyd Fox witnessed and documented the scene. Baltimore Police said they are investigating the allegations.
It is in fact completely legal to photograph police activities in public.  Despite this, there have been several other documented incidents in recent years where police have claimed it was illegal for members of the public to photograph them. The Sun noted a prior incident demonstrating the misconception by police that it is illegal to photograph police activities.
Just recently Sergio Gutierrez was recording Maryland State Police making arrests outside a Towson bar. With the video camera rolling, an officer approached him and told him to stop because he was distracting them. When Gutierrez asked what law he was violating, an officer gets up close and tells him to “shut your [expletive] mouth or you’re going to jail.” 
Gutierrez responded, “I thought I have freedom of speech.” The officer responded, “You just lost it,” as the camera is jostled and the person recording says he is being pushed. 
Other similar incidents in recent years have included:
- in June of 2011, photo journalist Manning Garcia of Kensington was arrested and charged with "disorderly conduct" for taking a video of Montgomery County police who were making an arrest.
- In 2010, Christopher Sharp had his cell phone confiscated after filming police arresting and allegedly beating woman during an altercation at Preakness. Sharp, represented by the ACLU, filed suit against the Baltimore Police Department.
- in June 2010 a motorist was arrested and had her cell phone confiscated by St Mary's County police for photographing police, an was charge under Maryland's wire tapping law
- in March of 2010, a motorcyclist was charged under Maryland wire tapping laws for photographing a police officer making a traffic stop with a helmet mounted camera and posting the video on YouTube

Last year police in Maryland photographed millions of motorists for the purpose of issuing photo tickets, asserting that motorists have "no expectation of privacy".

Thursday, March 6, 2014

House Committee Votes Down Repeal, Audit, Reform Bills

A committee in the Maryland House of Delegates has voted down multiple speed camera reform bills, with the committee vice chair vowing that only the bill he has sponsored would be allowed to go to the full House.

Among the bill killed in committee was one sponsored by Delegate Braveboy, which would have authorized the state to perform audits of speed camera programs.  A bill sponsored by Delegate Jon Cardin, which would have ended payments based on the number of tickets and required speed camera citations to contain sufficient information to identify speed measurement errors was also summarily shot down.  Another bill calling for quarterly audits of all speed camera programs, which was sponsored by forty six delegates from both parties, was also voted "unfavorable" by the committee.

The committee likewise voted down a bill that would have repealed speed cameras.  The committee vote on that bill is shown here.
click to enlarge

Many of the bills were prompted by a "secret audit" of Baltimore City's camera program which revealed that the program had systematically issued erroneous speeding tickets to tens of thousands of motorists.  Some of the speed measurement errors were so outrageous that they included citations issued to stationary vehicles.  Other issues recently uncovered include problems in the Town of Morningside, where motorists have alleged they received inaccurate citations and where the town failed to produce calibration records upon request.  In places like Salisbury and Wicomico County, there have been other complaints about calibration issues and/or errors.   Additionally, many local speed camera programs have been flouting a provision of the law which was supposed to bar speed camera contractors from being paid based on the number of citations, something even governor O'Malley has said violates the intent of the law.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance testified in support of several bills heard on the 18th, arguing that auditing was essential to prevent abuse.  We argued that without some requirement for evidence of speed no bill could be said to address the problems of errors which prompted the legislation in the first place.

Delegate James Malone
However these arguments may have fallen on deaf ears, given that Delegate Malone declared at the beginning of the February 18th hearing, before any testimony was presented, that only his bill (House Bill 929) would be approved by the committee.  Malone stated that his committee already knew everything there was to know about speed cameras, and instructed those testifying that  "Today is 'me too day'" and that they should just respond 'me too' if they had nothing new to add the committee hasn't heard before.

HB929 was developed primarily based on input from local governments, and therefore includes only those changes which the larger camera programs in the state concluded would not significantly affect them.  Supporters of HB929 claimed that "stakeholders" were included in the writing of the bill, and Malone stated that the committee had continued working on HB929 "during the interim" since last year's session.  However motorists who testified on speed camera legislation last year, and the Maryland Drivers Alliance, were not informed of any ongoing discussions or meetings during this interim.  Nor was our input as to what our grievances with the speed camera system solicited by the sponsors of HB929.  Montgomery County's Captain Tom Didone testified in favor of HB929 (while still calling for it to be weakened further), and cited a December 4 2013 speed camera symposium as an example of how local governments were working to working to fix problems with speed camera programs.  However Didone failed to mention that this meeting was closed to the public and the press, and that Didone personally blocked a representative of the Maryland Drivers Alliance from observing the meeting. We are forced to conclude that motorists and those who raised complaints in the first place are not considered "stakeholders" in discussions about speed cameras by those who hold power.

In our testimony on HB929, we noted several deficiencies in the bill as originally submitted:
- The bill makes it so speed camera operators need never actually test equipment themselves.  This new loophole would permit speed camera contractors to test equipment, without giving defendants the right to question the person who actually performed the test.  This essentially allows additional "hearsay evidence" to be used against speed camera defendants, without permitting defendants to present hearsay evidence in their defense.

- The bill is claimed to "end the bounty system", something which was supposed to be banned by current law but is nevertheless common practice. However the bill's wording contains a newly created loophole which would permit payments based on the number of tickets to continue, so long as they are not explicitly called "per ticket".  Quotas, payments for "batches of tickets". and other clever arrangements such as one devised by Wicomico County, would all be legal using new "semantic gymnastics".
How one contractor would 'end the bounty system' using semantic games: "Redspeed assures the County that the new system was created to be equivalent to the old system"
- The bill grandfathers in all existing contract arrangements until 2017, meaning it would have little practical effect immediately.  Local governments would thus not need to exercise a new "loophole" until years later, which most people will have forgotten the promises being made by lawmakers now that the practice of paying based on the number of tickets would eventually end.

- The bill essentially still permits all local governments to police themselves, and does not include any sort of outside oversight.  The bill sponsors said they looked into "oversight" in the past, but that no state agency wanted to do it.

- The bill refers to errors, but contains no requirement that a means to identify errors exist.  Without secondary evidence, errors can simply be denied if the admission would be embarrassing or costly to a local government.

- The bill encodes into law that up to a 5% rate of errors (one ticket in 20) is acceptable.  For a program the size of Baltimore or Montgomery County, tens of thousands of tickets per year acceptable under the law.

- The bill contains several provisions which are strikingly similar to existing clauses in Montgomery County's contract with Xerox Corporation.  Encoding such provisions from a specific contractor's existing contract into law could give that contractor a competitive bidding advantage.  Xerox corp currently spends more money on lobbying than any other speed camera company in the state, and has employed a highly influential and well connected lobbying firm to represent their interests.

The key provision HB929 contains which supporters claim would address problems is a requirement that someone be assigned the role of responding to complaints.  This position is modeled after an "ombudsman" which Montgomery County claims they already have.  While having a REAL "Ombudsman" would be a change for the better, in reality the person Montgomery County has given this title is actually their program manager, and he does not fit the definition of the word at all.  In the Maryland Drivers Alliance's testimony we quoted Abe Lincoln "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog? Five? No, Four.  Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg. "   Calling a program manager an "ombudsman" does not make them an independent advocate for the public, because he is already an advocate for the program.

In Montgomery County, their existing "ombudsman" stated to the legislature that he has voided 15-20 citations total.  This would be out of hundreds of thousands issued by Montgomery every year... and amounts to only about 0.005% of citations.  Contact information for this "ombudsman" does not appear on citations or in any obvious location on Montgomery County's website, so it is unlikely that most people would even know this person exists or that they could send him a complaint.  Most of the time complaints sent to Montgomery County are responded to by Captain Tom Didone (head of the county''s traffic enforcement division), not the nominal "Ombudsman" (Richard Harrison).  We have seen no indication that Mr Harrison has taken any positions contrary to the county's "official policy", or that he has ever ordered a mass refund of tickets over some systematic issue.  As such, we expect most local governments would likely follow this lead, give the new title to an existing staff member who is loyal to the program, without changing their current procedures significantly, and only void the most embarrassing and undeniable errors.  We believe, as written, this amounts to no more than politely asking municipal speed camera programs to do a better job of public relations.

Malone stated in a subcommittee meeting on the 18th that he believed local governments could deal with problems themselves, that he believed people with complaints about local speed camera programs like those in Morningside and Baltimore, should take those complaints up with local governments and not bring the complaints to state lawmakers.  Delegate McMillan, a co-sponsor of Malone's bill, did not respond to an email we wrote asking him whether he agreed with these statements by Malone.

This is not the final word on speed camera legislation this year.  The committee might still add amendments to HB929, or amendments might be added on the house floor.   However the bill's primary sponsor in the house has been an obstacle to prior efforts to obtain real reform of the system, and the sponsor of the Senate version (Senator Robey) is the author of the state's current corrupt and broken speed camera law.  Our belief is that any positive changes to this bill must come despite the efforts of these two sponsors, not because of them, since Robey and Malone will most likely try to shield the major county and municipal speed camera programs from any changes which might cut into revenues.  Real change will only occur if members of the public complain to state lawmakers loudly, frequently, and RIGHT NOW.