Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Takoma Park Police Officer Indicted In Road Rage Incident

A Takoma Park police officer has been indicted by a Prince George's County Grand Jury on charges of related to a 2014 road rage incident.

Prosecutors state that in July 2014 Officer Travis Ala, while off duty, was driving on Route 50 westbound in Bowie when he encountered an vehicle in the left lane.  Ala, according to prosecutors, swerved around the vehicle and pulled in front of it and applied his brakes.  A witness claimed that Ala then pulled a handgun and pointed it at motorists.

On Tuesday the grand jury indicted Ala on charges of first and second degree assault and the user of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence.

Officer Ala was also involved in a separate incident in March 2015 involving a fatal traffic accident which killed three people.  A Toyota Corolla driving on Route 50 in Anne Arundel County was stopped in traffic when it was struck from behind by a vehicle driven by off duty officer Ala, who was driving in an unmarked police vehicle registered to the Takoma Park Police.  Three passengers in the Toyota were killed.

After the July 2014 incident Ala was temporarily placed on administrative leave, but was returned to duty when no charges had been filed after several months.  After the crash in March Ala was placed back on administrative leave and remains so at this time.  Maryland state police have stated they have not completed their investigation into the March crash.

Before these incidents, Officer Ala had previously been named "Officer of the Year" by the Takoma Park Police in May 2014.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Governor Hogan Announces New Funding for Roads

Governor Larry Hogan announced $1.97billion in funding for highways and bridges to fund 84 individual projects across the state.

Selected projects would include repaving 1,959 lane miles of highway, 25 safety improvement projects, 13 projects targeted to improve traffic flow, and repairs to 26 bridges.  When combined with previously allocated funds, the state would now have funds allocated to fix all structurally deficient bridges in Maryland.
“Today, I’m delivering on my promise to provide nearly $2 billion in funding to our highways and bridges across the state,” said Governor Hogan. “This investment not only will move long-awaited highway projects into construction, so that Maryland families and businesses will benefit from safer, smoother roads, but also it will address every single structurally deficient bridge in the state. Building, maintaining, and fixing Maryland’s roads and bridges is a top priority of our administration.”.
Among newly funded projects which had been identified as high priority by counties:

  • Widening MD 404 from two to four lanes with a median from US 50 to the Denton Bypass
  • Widening US 113 from two to four lanes with a median from Five Mile Branch Road to north of Public Landing Road
  • Upgrading US 219 north of I-68 and building a new interchange at I-68
  • Reconstructing the MD 175/MD 295 interchange to improve access to Fort George G. Meade
  • Re-configuring traffic lanes along US 50 eastbound over Severn River Bridge to provide an additional lane to reduce congestion
  • Upgrading the existing partial interchange at the Greenbelt Metro Station to a full interchange to support the proposed FBI headquarters.
  • Reconstructing US 1 to a four-lane divided highway with a median and bicycle/pedestrian safety improvements from College Avenue to MD 193.  
  • Widening Northbound MD 140 (Reisterstown Road) to add a third lane from Painters Mill to Garrison View Road.
  • Widening MD 2/4 to provide a third through lane and auxiliary lanes in each direction from north of Stoakley Road to south of MD 765A.
  • Improving the intersection at MD 5 (Point Lookout Road) and Moakley Street/Abell Street.
  • Reconstructing the I-270/MD 85 interchange to reduce congestion and upgrade structurally deficient bridges.
  • A $100 million "Innovative Congestion Reduction Project" on I-270 in Montgomery County from I-370 to the Y-split.  This was stated to include "peak dynamic shoulder use, bus on shoulder use, ramp metering and other proven technology based initiatives designed to reduce congestion."

These projects would all be slated to begin work by 2018.  See Fact Sheet on Planned Projects.

The governor also announced that the Purple Line project would move forwards, but balked at the original price tag and announced that the project would be made "more cost effective and streamlined", and the state's share of the project being reduced to $168 million.
“I have always said this decision was never about whether public transit was worthwhile, but whether it is affordable and makes sense,” said Governor Hogan. “In reducing costs here, hundreds of millions of dollars will become available for other important projects. Our administration promised to chart a new course for Maryland – one where economic development and jobs are our top priority. The Purple Line is a long-term investment that will be an important economic driver for our state.”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Opinion: Drinking Does Not Make You Cool

This is a time of year where we tend to see too many stories involving teens leaving parties with underage drinking which have an all too familiar and tragic ending.  It is really sad that some still need to be reminded in this way....

 - Drinking does not make you grown up.  Acting responsibly makes you grown up.
 - Drinking and driving does not make you cool.  It makes you and your friends dead.  This may literally be the stupidest thing you do in your life.
 - A responsible person never gets in the car with a driver who has been drinking.
 - Your drinking buddy is not your best friend.  Your real friend is the guy at the party who isn't drinking who will get you home safely, or the person who takes your keys away because you are not fit to drive.
 - If you find driving to be "thrilling", you are doing it wrong.
 - A responsible driver does not start the car until all passengers are wearing their seat belts.
 - It is OK not to go to that party where underage drinking or drug use is going on in the first place.

Thank you.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Montgomery County Issued Erroneous Tickets

An investigation by the Maryland Drivers Alliance revealed that Montgomery County's speed camera program issued several erroneous citations in recent months by issuing  them to the wrong vehicle.  Meanwhile, Montgomery County's “Local Designee” failed to identify another confirmed erroneous citation and has so far refused to answer questions by the Maryland Drivers Alliance about the nature of this error.

Wrong Vehicles Cited In Multiple Instances
Evidence of the errors was uncovered in a Maryland Public Information Act Request which the editor of the Maryland Drivers Allegiance website filed with the county on April 17.  Included in the disclosed documents were several examples of acknowledged erroneous citations which Montgomery County issued between January and April of this year.

One motorist from Columbia wrote about a citation issued on Dufief Mill Road, where a small sedan had been mistaken for their SUV: “I only own a Black 2015 Ford Explorer, it seems the car in  the picture is a Ford Focus or similar vehicle”.

In another case, a motorist from Wilmington Massachusetts wrote “I received a citation number [####], the vehicle and license plate imaged are not mine.”

A  motorist from Parksville wrote “Please look at the vehicle in the photo, It appears to be maybe a blue or grey car maybe a Camry or something like that.”.  The motorist stated that their car was a bright Orange Prius, thus looked nothing like the vehicle in the image.

A fourth motorist from Washington State wrote “ I just got this letter of citation which isn't about my car, let alone didn't travel there at that time.  Mine is a Lexus IS and not the Lexus P---, there is no way you an be mistaken with the number if carefully looked at the pictures.

In each of these four cases the county's representative responded to acknowledged the citations had been issued in error,

Local Designee Failed to Spot “Processing Error”

Another motorist, whose complaint to the Maryland Drivers Alliance prompted our investigation, had received a citation dated March 20 2015 located at 10700 block of River Rd eastbound.  The motorist had written to Montgomery County's “Local Designee” asserting that it was impossible for her vehicle to have been in Montgomery County on that date.   However in this instance, Local Designee David McBain rejected her appeal. (In addition to being the "local designee", McBain is the Deputy Directory for the Traffic Division and second in command over the speed camera program after Captain Tom Didone, and thus has managerial responsibilities in the speed camera program).

However a few days later, the motorist received a void letter from Montgomery County which was dated four days BEFORE the local designee's response (presumably initiated by the county's contractor).  “After further review, it has been determined that the citation should be administratively voided due to a processing error.” stated the void letter dated April 10.

In fact the vehicle shown on the image was NOT in Montgomery County on March 20, 2015.  The recipient had multiple forms of evidence showing this could not be the case, and also noted to us that the weather shown in the image did not match the weather conditions on March 20.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance surmised that the speed camera might have been improperly configured with the wrong date, and wished to determine whether there might have been other “processing errors”.  We wrote to the “local designee' on April 23rd asking “whether you have investigated whether other citations issued from this speed camera dated between 3/19/2015 and 4/1/2015 may have contained erroneous information.  If not, I request that you please investigate whether this device was improperly configured during some portion of this time period.” and requesting that if other “processing errors” existed that they be voided as well.  We also asked that the nature of the “processing error” be explained.

We received no immediate response, and prompted the county again on May 5.  On May 6 Local Designee David McBain replied in an email “I will be responding to you tomorrow in the hopes that it will satisfy your request. ”.   However we still received no response to our questions on May 7th..  On May 15, we received  an email from the county stating that both our MPIA would be answered the next day, but there was no answer to tee questions we had asked the Local Designee.  The following week we received the response to our MPIA.  The documents did contain documents confirming that the designee had received the particular motorist's complaint, that an email from the “local designee” rejected the appeal AFTER the date on the void letter had been sent, and that the void letter was dated before the Local Designee's response.  However the response did NOT include an answer to our questions as to whether the local designee had investigated whether there might have been other “processing errors' from the camera located at 10700 Blk of River Road eastbound at the end of March.

After examining the documents and giving the county some additional time to answer the questions, we we repeated our questions to the local designee on  June 5.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance has yet to receive answers to our questions about this "Processing Error".

“Ombudsman” Denied Defendant's Request for Discovery of Records.
Documents received from the county also show that the County's Local Designee   denied a request for records made by a ticket recipient.  The motorist wrote in an email "If it is in the government's decision to move forward in this matter, I would request copies of any evidence the prosecution may have of my involvement in the "offense", and also asked for all maintenance records for the camera(s) involved."  One motorist requested.

Montgomery County's “Local Designee” refused the request to release records in advance of the hearing, arguing that“"Because the automated speed citation is not a criminal matter, the Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit is under no obligation to provide you with discovery of "records.

We note that the individual had not used the word "discovery" and had requested access to records, as ALL individuals are entitled to do under state law.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance has since sent a complaint to Montgomery County, noting that the county had improperly denied this defendants request for records.  Our complaint to the county stated:
Whether or not discovery is explicitly required by the constitution is irrelevant because the MPIA requires you provide a person in interest with access to records.  I refer to the Section 4 paragraph 1 of the MPIA manual on the OAG website: "A request expressing a desire to inspect or copy agency records may be sufficient to trigger the PIA’s requirements, even if it does not expressly mention the words “Public Information Act” or cite the applicable sections of the State Government Article."  and "An agency need not and should not demand written requests for inspection of agency documents when there is no question that the public has a right to inspect them. "  Moreover, FAIRNESS requires that a person is entitled to obtain records that would be used in a case against them.  The constitution might specify some BARE MINIMUM amount of rights the state can ever provide to a defendant under the law under any circumstances, but in Maryland the MPIA provides additional rights to a person in interest.  Furthermore, fairness demands that the county not withhold information from a defendant regardless of whether this is more than the bare minimum rights of discovery the constitution requires. 
The Local Designee position was presented to the public using the term "ombudsman", a term which Captain Tom Didone used it in his testimony to the legislature (but Montgomery County has since denied that they use this term in writing several times).  The term "ombudsman" would imply the role was intended to serve as some sort of independent agent who would ensure the fairness of the system, and the fact that Didone used the term in his recorded testimony to the legislature implies this was what the public was led to believe was the intent.  An "ombudsman" should not be looking for legal reasons why they should not need to honor a request for records by a ticket recipient.  ...

The Maryland Drivers Alliance awaits a response to our complaint.

Other Complaints Rejected By Local Designee

The Local Designee received several other complaints, some of which alleged speed measurement errors.  The Designee denied every single instance of a speed measurement error.  The documents provided in response  contain insufficient information for us to evaluate the individual complaints.

In several  cases, the designee was presented with a “time distance calculation” asserting that the speed measurement was in error.  In one case McBain  “I received your email where you were attempting to calculate a time-distance formula from the photographs that are provided in the citation.  Based on you calculations you believe you were erroneously issued an automated speed citation. “  McBain then asserted that the only purpose of reviewing citation images was to confirmed that parked vehicles had not been ticketed.  ”Vehicle Progression is the only thing that can be accurately detected when reviewing two photos and is  to sufficient to prevent parked  vehicles from receiving speeding citations when a proper review is being conducted”.  In this instance, McBain then proceeded to assert the citation was valid without presenting a time-distance calculation of his own.

However in another case, a motorist presented a time distance calculation based on the information on the citation, which showed a timestamp that had been rounded off to the second, thus not providing the accurate time interval.  In that case the local designee presented his OWN calculation, based on the time interval the device had recorded but which the county deliberately excludes from citations,  for the purpose of REFUTING the calculation.  "Utilizing the formulat D/T then converting FPS to MPH we can Verify the speed your vehicle was travelling.  As such: 14.961/0.239=65.598 FPS; 65.598x0.681818=42.680mph"  wrote Traffic Department Deputy Director and Local Designee David McBain when and only when it suited the county's purpose for math to be used to verify speed.

We previously reported that training documents created by Montgomery County's speed camera contractor, Xerox, demonstrated the use of time-distance calculations for the purpose of VERIFYING speed, not just determining whether a vehicle was stationary or not.  Those errors included stationary vehicles receiving citations, but also other errors where a vehicles were proven and admitted to have been cited for going much faster than their actual speed while they were still in fact moving.  Local governments, particularly Montgomery County, STRONGLY opposed any changes to the law which would have required citations to contain enough information to allow verification of speed.

In another case, the Local Designee stated that the presence of another vehicle directly adjacent to the car did not constitute a possible cause of “Radar Effects”.  Radar extends out in a “cone” shape, and cannot distinguish the speeds of different vehicles directly next to each other.

In another case, McBain stated that there was no indication of anything which could cause “radar effects” in the image.  It is unclear how this determination could be made with certainty in a case such as that  one where the images were taken at night, and objects that might have cause interference were  not illuminated.

Baltimore City's speed camera program was shut down after the city and their contractor (Xerox) were forced to admit that "radar effects" (using Xerox's term) had caused speed measurement errors.  Xerox is also the vendor for Montgomery County.  Independent reviews and audits performed in Baltimore have since revealed that such errors were widespread, and also that inappropriate practices were followed in issuing contracting.  Montgomery County strongly opposed any changes to the law which would have created independent audits or outside oversight of the sort which have taken place in Baltimore since the time of the admitted errors.

Local Designee Asserted Logs Containing Defect Were Valid
In the documents disclosed under our MIA request, McBain asserted that all of the camera logs he examined were valid.  Several of the daily setup logs which the Designee stated were valid were similar to the following:

Which showed that the “operator” “Signed” a step which was BLANK.  In every instance where such a defect existed in the log, the “local designee” did not consider it to be "invalid" that either the log does not accurate representation of the procedure being signed for, or else that camera “operators” are systematically signing for a step which was not performed.   There is no indication that defendants who requested review were provided copies of the logs so that they might have spotted the defect themselves prior to a court hearing so that they might use that information to prepare their defense.

Have you received an erroneous citation, an inadequate response from a "Local Designee", or did you receive a citation from a speed camera located at 10700 Blk River Rd e/b between March 19 and March 31 which might have contained an error?  If so, please assist our investigation by CONTACTING US.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Baltimore Releases New Report on Photo Enforcement Program Failures, Moves to Restart Cameras

Baltimore City has completed a new report on the failures and problems with their Speed and Red Light camera programs.

Baltimore City's speed and red light camera programs have been shut down at the end of 2012 after revelations that the city's speed cameras had systematically issued tickets to motorists who were not speeding.  Contractor Xerox admitted that at some sites five percent of tickets issued were actually speed measurement errors, and a later independent audit found that as many as 10% of citations were due to apparent errors and should not have been issued.  These admissions were prompted by an extensive investigation by the Baltimore Sun, which revealed that stationary cars had been ticketed for speeding and documented the problem to the point where it could not be denied.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance had published speed camera videos and images showing large trucks apparently moving far slower than the speeds they had been accused of.  Emails obtained by the Maryland Drivers Alliance in 2012 showed the city had been aware speed camera tickets had been issued based on erroneous speed measurements months before the city finally took the cameras offline and the problems were publicly admitted.

The report examined over 10,000 documents.  They did note however that a single investigator had been assigned to the task, and funding for the investigation was cut off in January 2015.  Over 200 requested documents were "unreadable" due to what the Law Department called a "software glitch".  Furthermore the remaining "millions" of documents the Law Department stated existed were not produced, and investigators stated they had insufficient time to examining them.

The investigation primarily looked at contractual issues and the actions of the city's contractors and some city employees, rather than the technical causes of erroneous citations.

The report discussed how after Xerox lost the contract with the city to a new vendor, Brekford, Xerox did not assist Brekford by supplying software needed to operate the city's existing cameras.  "The committee noted that Xerox made things worse by it's continued course of conduct during the fall of 2012.  It clearly wanted to maintain control of the system despite having lost the contract to Brekford.  In its negotiations with Brekford, there is evidence not only of this attempt to maintain control but also to reap the vast majority of the bounties then available under the contract."

"The documents that were reviewed also contained allegations that Xerox deliberately sabotaged City property.  A number of them point to an alleged tampering event in which Xerox technicians made two camera units inoperable on the last day of the contract.", stated the report, however the report claimed the allegations could not be confirmed since the law Department failed to produce additional documents related to the alleged incident.

The report discussed how the city's new speed camera contractor Brekford sought to have Richard Retting, a photo enforcement expert responsible for many of the studies the industry uses in support of photo enforcement, hired to conduct a supposedly "independent" safety review.  Retting has been closely associated with Brekford Corp, and Brekford has described Retting as a "Brekford AGTE Partner" in corporate presentations.  The report referenced an email exchanged between Brekford CO C.B. Brechin and Retting stating "Great news, we were able to get the City of Baltimore to hire you separately so it looks independent... Again thanks for all your service."   The report stated "the choice of words in the email leads one to question the propriety of this hire."  Investigators stated they forwarded this to the City Solicitor for investigation but never received a response.

The report showed how the city was more concerned with the perception of errors than the actual fact that some motorists would be falsely accused.  "The real challenge will be getting the media to accept that, while the city is doing everything we can to improve the accuracy rate, the system will not be perfect and some (very small) percentage level of error may still occur,"  program manager Jamie McDonald wrote in a March 14, 2013 email.

The report recommended that the city implement a smaller program, and the Mayor is moving ahead with an RFP to obtain bids for a new contract.

Some state lawmakers who voted for speed cameras apparently also believe that the public should accept a certain rate of erroneous citations.  So called "reforms" implemented under changes to the law passed in 2014 by the state legislature explicitly states that an error rate of up to 5%, one ticket in 20, is acceptable before a contractor would be penalized.  For a program the size of Montgomery County's existing program or Baltimore City's previous program, this would permit tens of thousands of erroneous citations per year.  Errors have been proven and/or alleged in many other local speed camera programs in the state aside from Baltimore, however no other program has been subjected to the type of detailed audits that Baltimore's program has.  Local governments in the state strongly resisted calls for speed camera programs to be subject to regular independent audits and state lawmakers refused to include any form of auditing or independent outside oversight in so called "reform" legislation, and the sponsors of the 2014 legislation refused to include any such requirements.

Xerox has speed camera contracts for programs in Montgomery County, Rockville, Gaithersburg, Chevy Chase, and Baltimore County, and is also the vendor for the SHA's program.  Brekford holds contracts for several municipal programs in the state including Salisbury, Greenbelt, Laurel, and Hagerstown.

Additional Coverage
Baltimore Sun: City Council Report Blasts Speed Camera Program
TheNewspaper.com: Baltimore, Maryland Looks To Revive Traffic Cameras
CBS Baltimore: Baltimore Looks To Relaunch Speed Camera Program