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.

I admit it, many state lawmakers hate us.  They prefer to deal with an uneducated, disinterested, and passive public.  They can't stand that we dug into the language of the bill and documented that most of its claimed provisions really do nothing.  They hate us because we won't "play ball" like a politician (and like another so called motorists organization which is really an insurance company), treating the issue as simply a bargaining chip for other things and pretending that a do nothing bill actually does something productive.  They hate that we keep reminding the public that it is the state legislature who created the current system, and that those state lawmakers are ultimately responsible for the industrial scale miscarriage of justice which has taken place in the state, including problems in Baltimore --- but also in a great many other programs in the state.

They hoped nobody would see that the bill was designed to allow speed cameras vendors to "operate" equipment, and making it so that public employees who currently are required to perform the testing of equipment will no longer be required to do so.  Is such a weakening of the integrity of a system, and further eroding the right to confront an accuser "better than nothing"?

They hoped nobody would notice how they twisted the language of the meaning of the so called "bounty system" they pledge to eliminate, such that other arrangements that are not strictly called "per ticket" .  They were hoping nobody would realize that the current "loophole", invented by the .  They were hoping nobody would realize that the term "bounty system" is something coined by THE PRESS, which doesn't exist in contract language at all, and that what they are really doing is eliminating the TERM "bounty system", not the practice of paying based on the number of tickets.  If this were not the case, surely the could have made an extremely minor change to the bill's language to close the loophole we have called them on.  If this were not the case, surely they didn't need to grandfather in all existing contracts, and give local governments until June to extend their existing contracts until 2017... when the promises being made today will likely have been forgotten by most people and by the press.  Is an elaborate deception really "better than nothing"?

They were hoping nobody would call them out on the fact that what their bill is really doing is calling on speed camera programs to assign a dedicated PR representative, and that this person's primary role is to keep unfavorable information away from the press, and away from us, not providing a path for appeals.  Is conducting more thorough "spin jobs" really "better than nothing"?

They would hope nobody would realize that some of the contorted language of the bill comes right out of provisions of Montgomery County's existing contract with Xerox.  That the provisions are designed to e so weak that they could never be executed IN PRACTICE, unless a local government WANTS to activate the provisions, and that there is no way for the public to force it.  They were hoping nobody would call them out on the fact that setting a 5% rate of errors as the threshold at which contractors start to receive very minor penalties -- counting only those errors which the local government ACKNOWLEDGES to be errors of their own accord, not even counting those identified in court -- basically establishes by law that in a program issuing hundreds of thousands of citations per year, having 10-20,000 erroneous tickets per year is OK.  Is that "better than nothing"?

They were hoping that nobody would notice that the bill doesn't apply to the SHA's program AT ALL, and that in fact there HAVE BEEN problems with the SHA's program documented in the past, and failures by the SHA to comply with state law, which the bill fails to address in any way.  Is ignoring one of the largest speed camera programs in the state "better than nothing"?

When we testified to the Environmental Matters Committee, we testified on the repeal bill.  We told them that their failure to consider the other proposals before them, or to consider the things we were calling for, proved that the system is too corrupt to be kept in place.  We told them to please "prove us wrong" by actually looking at the proposed amendments we offered.
  • We call on the legislature to change the language to eliminate ALL payments to contractors "based on the number of citations", not just those where they use the TERM "per ticket".
  • We call on them to reverse the change in the bill which allows speed camera contractors to test equipment.
  • We call on them to require annual audits which INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY ACCURACY OF CITATIONS and/or VERIFY THAT CALIBRATION PROCEDURES AND DAILY SETUP LOG PROCEDURES HAVE BEEN FOLLOWED. 
  • We call on them to require SECONDARY EVIDENCE OF SPEED.  We have offered language which ANY speed camera system can satisfy, and does not require any hardware changes whatsoever, nor does the language require that the agencies incur the cost of actually performing  time-distance calculation themselves... just that Motorists should be allowed to offer such calculations in their defense if that evidence is in fact exonerating.  This is a reasonable compromise from bill language offered by the sponsor of another speed camera bill the House Committee rejected out of hand.
  • We call on them to ensure that the labs which test equipment actually be accredited to test equipment "FOR ACCURACY".  Right now there is no requirement that equipment used in Maryland be tested to any particular standard, it's just however the manufacturer wants it to be tested, which might not be sufficient to ensure accuracy at all.
  • We call on them to REQUIRE that the actual speed camera operators testify .  THIS IS A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT, and lawmakers risk a constitutional legal challenge. Should they proceed with the changes they are planning which actually reduce the right to face an accuser offering evidence against a defendant, and if lawmakers refuse to address this significant constitutional issue then the courts might be asked to do so instead.
All of them were utterly ignored out of hand.  In fact they were so thoroughly ignored that one might argue this was done purely out of spite, because they don't want to give the critics of cameras who helped uncover the problems in the first place any credit.  Offering one or two things someone has asked would be "better than nothing".  Deliberately avoiding giving someone any of what they are calling for, even where it would make total sense to do so, is 'worse than nothing'.

Is deliberately putting forward the weakest bill they possibly could, one designed by local governments which currently profit from speed camera programs with a specific eye towards making sure it didn't force them to change anything significant, "better than nothing"?  Is doing this with the hope that next year, when their seats are safe for another four years, they can get back to the business of expanding photo enforcement "better than nothing"?  Is putting forward a "reform" bill which corrects NONE of the due process violations we have called out "better than nothing"?

We say no, "Reform in name only" is simply another lie,  and to call it anything more than that is just showing contempt for the driving public.  We are not going to "go along to get along" and bargain our legal rights away for something shiny.  If lawmakers won't reform the system FOR REAL, then The People should fight them in whatever way we can.