Sunday, August 30, 2015

Montgomery Never Voided Tickets Issued With Skipped Calibration Tests

For several years, Montgomery County routinely issued speed camera citations on days where a basic requirement of the law for daily calibration logs was not met, yet refunds were never issued after this fact was disclosed.

We previously reported in 2010 that Montgomery County did not have daily setup logs for numerous days where citations were issued for many of their speed cameras. State law required the following:

"(3) A speed monitoring system operator shall fill out and sign a daily set–up log for a speed monitoring system that:
(i) States that the speed monitoring system operator successfully performed the manufacturer–specified self–test of the speed monitoring system prior to producing a recorded image;
(ii) Shall be kept on file; and
(iii) Shall be admitted as evidence in any court proceeding for a violation of this section."

We had hoped that Montgomery County would do the right thing and refund citations which had been issued when this basic calibration requirement – a requirement intended to protect the public from faulty speed cameras readings – was not met. However that never happened, and Montgomery County instead chose to keep the loot.
Sure enough the documents provided showed that NONE of the dates we requested in 2009 or 2010 had actual daily setup logs which met this requirement.  This included a date in September four months after our report on this issue and after the Washington Examiner reported this issue.... a time period which should have been more than adequate for Montgomery County to change their procedures.

When the press first discovered this fact, the county's reaction was one of total contempt for the law. Captain John Damesky, who headed the county's speed camera program at the time, responded to the Washington Examiner "We're not going to do this [test] every day. We're just not going to do that." --- denying that the county had an obligation to meet the clear wording of state law.  Montgomery County did eventually change their practices regarding how these calibration tests were performed, but only many months after the press became aware of the issue.  The dates when lapses were detected were primarily on weekends and holidays (since Montgomery County issues citations 24/7 at locations which are not inside school zones) but at the time it appears no speed camera operators were on duty to run required tests and fill out required logs.  

To follow up on this issue in June of 2015, a public information act request was sent to Montgomery County by a supporter of this site requested daily calibration logs for one camera located near Olney at 19600 Georgia Avenue northbound on the following dates: 9/6/2009, 10/31/2009, 11/28/2009, 12/27/2009, 1/3/2009, 1/03/2009, 1/31/2009, 2/14/2010, 4/3/2010, 5/30/2010, 9/5/2010, 5/18/2013. The requested dates included weekends when we were aware Montgomery County was issuing citations, but when we suspected they did not have speed camera operator on duty to meet that statutory requirement.  One more recent date in 2013 was included in the request for comparison purposes.

 Instead the county provided start-and-end calibration logs from other dates revealing that there were gaps in the calibration logs of several days.
Date Requested
Start Date of Log Provided
End Date of Log Provided
Gap in days
# Citations Issued on Date
9/5/20109/3/20109/7/20104(ie NOT "daily")44
5/18/20135/17/20135/18/20131 (ie "daily")40

The public information act also include a request for records showing how many of the citations issued were refunded or voided. The county responded to this that portion of the request “There has been no administrative voiding or refunding on the referenced dates above”.
In addition to having logs for numerous days missing, many of the logs showed that the "operator" had "signed" to having performed a step in the setup procedure which was BLANK on the logs.  This apparent error existed in daily setup logs day after day, month after month, FOR YEARS, yet thousands of citations were approved for cameras with these defective logs without question.  The cameras were simply assumed to be in perfect working order, even though the logs themselves were not.

Other local governments have issued refunds for citations where annual calibration requirements were not met.  However Montgomery County went to court, at taxpayer expense, to support the principal that a speed camera program could not be sued for the refund of speed camera tickets that have already paid, regardless of the reason. As such, it currently appears that when it comes to a SYSTEMATIC issue with Montgomery County's speed camera, the rule they follow is “Once you have their money, never give it back”. The addition of a so called “Ombudsman” to Montgomery County's program (a term they have since rejected as describing the program's “Local Designee”), has not changed this at all, since it did not result in refunds for this potentially very large number of illegally issued citations.

Montgomery County may have succeeded in getting the legislature to write them a free pass on similar issues that may occur in the future.  In 2014, under the guise of “reform” to the system, the legislature passed a change to state law which modified the wording of the requirement for daily setup logs to instead say “(3)   A speed monitoring system operator shall fill out and sign a daily set–up log for a speed monitoring system that: (i)   States that the speed monitoring system operator successfully performed or reviewed and evaluated the manufacturer–specified daily self–test of the speed monitoring system prior to producing a recorded image;”.   This seemingly minor change removes the requirement that the person signing the logs actually perform the test, or witness that it actually took place.  This not only permits an additional level of “hearsay evidence” to be used against defendants in speed camera hearings, since the operators could testify to the results of tests which were performed when they were not even on duty.  Thus a local government could argue this change makes it legal to have one single "operator" push a button from a remote location to electronically "sign" all logs for a day without ever observing the camera itself. The legislation which enacted this change was part of the “speed camera reform act of 2014”, which was written by a speed camera reform legislative work group whose meetings included at least three members of Montgomery County's automated traffic division; opponents of speed cameras were not invited.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Montgomery County Finally Acknowledges "Processing Errors"

More than three months after we originally asked Montgomery County to explain the cause of "processing errors" reported to us by motorists, Montgomery County has finally acknowledge that the case was not isolated to a single citation and that in fact 123 alleged speed camera violations needed to be voided after a speed camera located on River Road was improperly configured.

The incident was first reported to us by a motorist who had requested that Montgomery County's "Local Designee" review a citation she had received on a day in March 2015 when her car was nowhere near Montgomery County. The Local Designee declared the citation was legitimate.   However a few days later, that motorist received a form letter void notice for the citation, which was dated EARLIER than the local designee's response.

On April 23, we asked Montgomery County's "Local Designee" to provide an explanation for the cause of the processing error.  This was not answered.  On June 5 we repeatedly asked the local designee to explain the cause of the processing errors, among other questions, but the Local Designee never provided a response to that, despite a legal requirement that the local designee respond to questions or concerns "withing a reasonable period of time" according to state law.

On June 22 we sent Montgomery County a public information request for records about voided citations, including .  On July 30, 8 days after the legally required time limit for responding to public information act requests, the county sent a response that confirmed 123 violations needed to be voided from March 28 through March 31, when a camera had been improperly configured.  "GM All, Per our conversation on Wednesday all events n March28 to March 31 will need to be voided due to tech entering wrong date (123 violations)." stated an email provided by the MCPD.  Daily setup logs from March 18-April 1 were also part of the request, but no calibration logs dated 3/28, 3/29, or 3/30 were included in the responsive documents.

However our MPIA request had actually been for records of all voided citations from March 18 to the date of our request, and the county ONLY provided records pertaining to this single event.  We have received information that other citations were voided in this time period, and informed the MCPD that we considered their response incomplete for that reason --- and have requested that they also provide records of voided "processing errors" which they did not already know we were aware of.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

College Park Speed Camera Revenues Surge

Excerpt of revenues from College Park budget
The City of College Park's gross speed camera revenues increase by more than a million dollars over the previous year's level, according to the city budget.

In FY2014, College Park had brought in $1,529,721 in speed camera funds.  The city had budgeted $1,600,000 for FY2015, but announced actual revenues of $2,695,065 in FY15 in the city's requested budget for FY16.  This amounts to a 76% increase in revenues in a single year.

This money is divided between the city and their contractor, Optotraffic, who receives a percentage-cut bounty off of camera revenues.  Optotraffic saw their piece of the action increase from $596,591 in FY14 to $1,051,075 in FY15.

The revenue increase was due to the the fact that Speed limits on a portion of Rhode Island Avenue were lowered by 5 mph and the city deployed three new speed cameras.   College Park also began issuing citations 24/7 and on weekends due to a specific exception which permits them to run speed cameras outside school zones.

The city's total general fund revenues were reported to be $13,507,069.  The city's $1,643,990 cut of speed camera ticket revenues constitutes approximately 12% the amount of general fund revenues.