Baltimore City said Tuesday that it will throw out more than 6,000 speed and red-light camera tickets because its former contractor has stopped showing up in court to defend them — the latest sign of the dysfunction dogging Baltimore's speed camera program.
City transportation officials say they lack the evidence to fight the appeals on their own. Voiding the tickets means the city is forgoing the chance to collect more than $300,000 in fines.
The announcement comes after judges over the past two weeks dismissed 600 speed camera tickets because city lawyers said they had no evidence.
"It's like amnesty day or something," District Judge Catherine C. O'Malley told motorists in her courtroom Friday before dismissing all their tickets.
City officials and the contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, are pointing the finger at each other, with the city saying that Xerox has not provided the necessary information and Xerox insisting that it has given the city all the data it needs to mount a defense in court.
Word of the wholesale dismissals comes days after the city stopped issuing any tickets from its troubled speed and red-light camera program. Officials shut the program down after acknowledging that they would have to void more than 500 tickets because of a programming glitch with one of the cameras supplied by the city's new vendor, Brekford Corp.
Meanwhile, city solicitor George Nilson revealed Tuesday that the city and Xerox are also locked in a financial dispute. Nilson wouldn't give details but said the company claims it is owed "a significant amount" of money by the city. A Xerox spokesman declined to comment on the dispute.
The 600 citations dismissed in court this month include ones issued in August and September. Xerox managed the city's speed and red-light camera system through Dec. 31, and drivers who appealed tickets issued last fall haven't had hearings yet at the Wabash Avenue courthouse.
"There are over 4,000 speed and 2,000 red light citations awaiting trial, so letters will be issued to those motorists stating that their tickets will be voided," Department of Transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said in an e-mail Tuesday. Speed camera ticket fines are $40, while red light ticket fines are $75.
Last Friday, O'Malley dismissed all 200 speed camera tickets on her docket.
"Everybody is going to be very happy," she told motorists gathered in court, prepared to appeal their tickets. "They don't have any evidence for any of these speed camera tickets."
"No evidence?" O'Malley asked, turning to Liz Martinez, an assistant city solicitor.
"No evidence, your honor," Martinez replied.
A member of a task force appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to study the city's camera enforcement program praised the city's intention to notify motorists the tickets will be thrown out so they don't need to travel to court. But she expressed concern about the city's inability to present evidence.
"If the city is unable to move forward with a case absent information from a vendor, I think it raises the question of who is actually overseeing or running that program," said Ragina Averella, public and government affairs manager at AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Asked why the city claimed it lacked evidence, Nilson, the city's top lawyer, said, "Essentially the city needs access to information that has been in the possession of and brought forward by Xerox. They're no longer available to bring that information forward. If you want to find out why that is so, ask Xerox."
Xerox says it has given the city all necessary information to defend the tickets. "The city has been provided the data they need in order to bring evidence to court," company spokesman Carl Langenkamp said in a statement to The Sun. Until recently, a company official would use a laptop computer to present photos and in many cases video clips to support a speeding allegation.
Although Xerox's contract ended Dec. 31, the company assisted the city for more than 90 days "to facilitate a smooth transition," Langenkamp said. Xerox offered to enter into a contract with the city for transition services, he said, but was unable to reach agreement.
Langenkamp said the city had ample time to prepare to handle these appeal cases itself. "We notified the city and the court system multiple times and well in advance that our [court] representation would end on April 8."
Nilson offered a different version of events. He said that the city tried to "fashion an agreement" to keep Xerox going to court until all pending appeals were exhausted, but that company officials "were non-responsive."
Nilson played down the significance of the mass dismissals, calling the number "fairly modest" in the context of Baltimore's program. The city has issued more than 1.6 million speed camera tickets since 2009 and collected more than $48 million in fines.
"We are much more focused on essentially trying to get it right with the new vendor and getting it back up and running," he said.
This year Brekford began rolling out new radar-equipped cameras at a cost to the city of $2.2 million. The city suspended its speed and red-light camera program last week amid reports that a new camera on The Alameda issued tickets based on a 25 mph speed limit even though the posted limit is 30 mph. The city said it would void more than 500 citations from that camera.
The city has given no timetable for the program to resume.
A Sun investigation documented numerous problems with the city's speed camera program prior to this year, with seven cameras supplied by Xerox found to have recorded inaccurate speeds — including one that clocked a car going 38 mph even though it was stopped.
Before its Baltimore contract ended, Xerox received up to $19.20 of each $40 fine payment — a "bounty" system that critics say gave an incentive to process questionable tickets. Legislation that would have more clearly barred such contracts failed in the final moments of the General Assembly session that ended this month.
Existing state law bars per-ticket payments if a contractor "operates" a program, but local governments have gotten around that by arguing that they, not the vendor, are the operator. The city's contract with Brekford will pay the company $11.20 per citation.
The transition from Xerox to Brekford was bumpy even before the problem surfaced with the Alameda camera. Starting Jan. 1, the city had to take the entire speed and red-light camera system offline for weeks as it prepared to replace all 83 speed cameras.
In an interview Friday after court, O'Malley said she had "no clue" why the city said it was unable to defend the tickets. "All I know is they said, 'We don't have any evidence.' As a judge, the only thing you can do is dismiss a case."
Her bench announcement that all citations would be dismissed elicited smiles and quiet cheers from the accused speeders assembled before her.
"I didn't know it would be that simple and quick," Tinia Simpson said afterward. The West Baltimore resident said she was appealing a ticket issued in August.
Simpson, who is unemployed, took her 1-year-old son Jaydon because she didn't have a baby sitter. "I feel for the people that were working that had to take off to go up there for it all to be dismissed," she said. "That is money and time that was missing from out their day."
Another motorist, defense attorney Jerome Bivens, said he was "flabbergasted," calling it "bizarre" that a city lawyer admitted having no evidence for any of the tickets.
To Bridgette Guy of Northwest Baltimore, the outcome gave further proof that speed cameras were "basically set there just to swindle people's money for the city." But while she was "absolutely thrilled" to see her ticket tossed out, she wishes the city alerted her ahead of time to spare her the trip to Wabash.
"I was absolutely annoyed by that," she said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun