Friday, April 11, 2014

Legislature Fails to Pass Meaningful Speed Camera Reform

After revelations of industrial scale false accusations against motorists by Baltimore City's failed speed camera program, problems with calibration of equipment in Greenbelt, Hagerstown, and Salisbury, and complaints about alleged speed camera errors in locations such places as Montgomery County, Morningside, and Wicomico County, there was much talk about how the legislature would "reform" the state's speed camera law.  In the end the state legislature did pass a bill alleged to reform the state's speed camera law, which is now on it's way to the Governor, and this is the least they could do. We mean that quite literally... they couldn't have passed a weaker and less meaningful reform bill if they had tried.

The bill,. House Bill 929, was was written largely based input from local governments such as Montgomery County.  The bill's chief sponsor, Environmental Matters Committee Vice Chair Delegate Malone, openly stated at the beginning of the bill's February 18th hearing that no other speed camera bill but his own that he wanted people testifying to simply say "me too".  In the Motor vehicle's subcommittee meeting that follows, Malone further stated that he didn't think people with complaints about speed camera programs should take those concerns to the legislature, specifically citing that one motorist who had come with a complaint about Morningside's speed camera programs should have simply taken it up with the mayor of the town.  It should be no surprise that the foundation of this bill is that local speed camera programs will all continue to police themselves with no meaningful oversight, and that "business as usual' must continue without interruption.

The bill's provisions primarily clarify existing requirements of the law such as signage and the definition of a school zone.  It does require that local governments to appoint an "administrator" for the program -- something which most programs already have in some form already.  It also requires , which is authorized to void tickets.  This is modeled after a position in Montgomery County, who is actually the program manager and whose loyalty is necessarily to the program rather that the public.  Indeed few people even know this position exists, and the individual who holds it has thus far not publicly spoken on behalf of motorists in opposition to any of the county's existing policies.

The bill sponsors have pledged it will "end the bounty system".  However it contains loopholes (which we had clearly pointed out to them) that will permit payments based on the number of tickets to continue.  Indeed  the bill gives speed camera programs until June of this year to sign new agreements or extensions to existing contracts that will be locked in until 2017.  Make no mistake, two years from now most speed camera programs in the state will still be paying their contractors based on the number of tickets, something the public was told when Maryland's speed camera law was first passed would not be allowed in the first place.

The bill provides no actual oversight of local speed camera programs, and leaves the public with no choice but to trust every municipality in the state to be responsible and competent -- even  those which have proven time and again that they are not.  It writes into law that contractors can issue up to 5% (1 in 20) citations in error, which for a program the size of Montgomery County's or Baltimore's would allow many thousands of errors per year.  Even this is based only on the number of "errors" which the local government freely acknowledges, indeed even citations identified as errors in court are specifically forbidden from being counted.

Calls for "secondary evidence" which could be used to identify errors were ignored.  Thus there is no requirement that evidence of the sort used to identify the pattern of errors that happened in Baltimore need ever exist.  Many lawmakers and some organization had called for audits of speed camera programs similar to the one which identified errors in Baltimore, and sponsors of the bill stated in committee that they were working on an audit provision.  But in the end it didn't happen.  The bill does not include the word "audit" and the other bills submitted this year calling for audits were killed by the Environmental Matters Committee.  The principal that each local government shall have a monopoly on the ability to identify errors is fully upheld.

The legislature had many chances to pass stronger reform, including a bill proposed by Delegate Jon Cardin and several bills that were submitted in last year's session.    The legislature rejected out of hand several common sense amendments we proposed, such as affirming the right to confront a speed camera operator in court.  A slightly different version of the same bill sponsored by Senator Brochin, included one difference which would have narrowed the definition of a school zone, was amended to remove the additional requirements.  In the end the sponsors of the House bill refused to accept any requirements that would have truly changed the way business was done or where cameras were placed.  Those who wanted REAL reform were simply told this is the best they were going to get, and that it was "better than nothing".

The bill also had the support of groups like the Maryland Association of Counties and Maryland Municipal League: organizations which represent local governments that profit from speed cameras and which opposed more serious reform bills.  Some lawmakers apparently came under intense pressure to submit the weakest reform bill they possibly could in exchange for promises of support on other bills they wanted to pass in an election year.  The bill also had the support of AAA, an insurance company which supported statewide speed cameras in 2009 and which opposed the repeal of speed cameras last year.  Last year AAA was permitted to participate in closed meetings with MaCo and the MML, which the press and groups that oppose speed cameras were banned from, a testament to the fact that supporting speed cameras is part of the price of admission to the discussion.

Lawmakers now hope this snow job will let them take credit for "reforming" the system until after this November's elections.  Once the public has forgotten about the industrial scale miscarriage of justice which took place in Baltimore, there will no longer be any talk of "reform" and the discussion will instead return to the expansion of automated enforcement and further infringements on the legal rights of motorists.