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Lawmaker pitches $1,000 penalty for 'bogus' speed camera tickets

Del. Cardin also wants audits and a way to verify alleged speeds

By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

8:14 PM EST, December 10, 2012

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Speed camera companies and local governments would be penalized $1,000 for each "bogus" citation issued to motorists under proposed legislation announced Monday by state Del. Jon Cardin.

The Baltimore County Democrat also wants to require governments in Maryland to submit regular speed camera audits to the General Assembly. And he wants to help ensure the accuracy of tickets by mandating precise time stamps on the two photos mailed to drivers as evidence of their speeding.

His proposal comes after The Baltimore Sun found inaccuracies with five of the city's 83 automated speed cameras and showed that there's no way to verify the alleged speeds printed on tickets issued by Baltimore County, Howard County and the State Highway Administration.

"Over the last few weeks, the speed camera issue has really shaken all our confidence in what our government is here to do," Cardin told reporters at a news conference in downtown Baltimore. "Is government here to raise revenue, or is government here to keep our residents safe?"

He called it "a terrible breach in the public trust" for people to be ticketed erroneously, saying his constituents have voiced concerns. "I hear anger."

With a new General Assembly session a month away, Cardin is the latest legislator to call for changes to the state law detailing how dozens of cities and counties in Maryland operate their speed camera programs. The law passed in 2009 with strong backing from Gov. Martin O'Malley.

"Clearly there have been some flaws exposed in programs administered by the locals," said O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory. "Of course we would take a look at any legislation to bring some consistency and fairness."

Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, plans to sponsor a "correctional" bill to address several shortcomings he sees in the law. One would limit the operation of school zone cameras to school hours, rather than the current range of 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. year-round on weekdays.

Brochin, an opponent of speed cameras, also wants to strengthen a provision that some lawmakers say already forbids governments from paying contractors a fee based on the number of tickets. Such so-called "bounty" systems are in effect in the city, Baltimore County and elsewhere.

"Short of repeal, which I have tried and not been able to accomplish, we've got to get it right and say it's not about the money," Brochin said last week.

Del. James E. Malone Jr., who chairs the Motor Vehicles & Transportation subcommittee of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said his panel will look to overhaul the entire law. The Baltimore County Democrat said several jurisdictions have misinterpreted the law in several areas.

In a report released last month, legislative auditors criticized the State Highway Administration, saying the state began using speed cameras without conducting sufficient tests to ensure their accuracy. The report said the state used the mobile cameras for nine months without having them independently calibrated to ensure they were working properly.

Asked about Cardin's ideas, city Department of Transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said, "We appreciate that Delegate Cardin shares our goal of eliminating speed camera errors." She invited him and any other legislator to observe the work of a task force created by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to review the city's automated traffic enforcement program.

The task force is scheduled to hold its next meeting at 10:30 a.m. Friday in the Charles L. Benton Jr. Building downtown.

Barnes did not address any of Cardin's specific recommendations. A Rawlings-Blake spokesman said the city will review any legislation that is submitted to the General Assembly.

The city, which has taken in about $40 million in speed camera fines since 2009, says the cameras have improved safety and reduced speeding. It says it is committed to preventing errors. The city has acknowledged voiding 6,000 citations, which it notes is a small fraction of the 1.6 million tickets issued.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said he was open to ideas from state lawmakers to "strengthen" the public's trust in his county's speed camera program, a view echoed by state highway officials. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz declined to comment, his spokeswoman said.

Chris Gilligan, a spokesman for Xerox State and Local Solutions Inc., said, "We look forward to seeing the proposal when it is written and working with Delegate Cardin to help keep roads safe by helping reduce the number of speeders on Maryland roadways."

The company, a unit of technology giant Xerox Corp., is the speed camera contractor in the city, Baltimore County, Howard County and state highway work zones. Next month, the city is switching to a new contractor, Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County.

"We want people to drive slow," Cardin said at the news conference. "We want our citizens, our construction workers and our students to be safe. But we can't undermine the confidence" of residents in the process.

House majority leader Kumar Barve offered support for Cardin's idea to impose a financial penalty when a citation is found to be inaccurate.

"I think he's going in the right direction," Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, said Monday. "Imposing a cost for errors is a good thing. Whether it should be $1,000 or $500 or $200, that's up for debate. The principle of having a penalty for bad behavior is actually pretty sound."

Cardin said he has not worked out details of his proposals, such as who would pay the $1,000 penalty. "I have a feeling the contracts are going to be set up by the jurisdictions in a way that makes sure the contractors are on the hook for having their tickets be legit," he said.

He also said he is still working on defining the circumstances under which a ticket would be deemed "bogus."

Not every ticket thrown out by a judge would qualify, he said, but some would: "If a judge throws it out based on the fact that they think it's one that was false, faulty in some way … somebody going 40 miles per hour in a 40-mile-per-hour zone, and a judge throws it out on those grounds, then yes."

To give motorists a way to fact-check their alleged speed, he thinks lawmakers should use Baltimore as a model. When the city issues a ticket, the two time-stamped photos are measured to a fraction of a second. The time between the two photos, plus a measurement of the distance a vehicle traveled, can be used to calculate the speed — which can then be compared to the alleged speed.

Tickets issued by surrounding counties and the state highway agency round off the time to the second, meaning both pictures often have the identical time, making such an analysis impossible. The jurisdictions all say they comply with the law, which does not specify how precise times must be.

The Sun used the time stamps to determine that five city cameras have issued erroneous citations. Two of the cameras, on West Cold Spring Lane near the Polytechnic Institute-Western High School campus, have not issued any citations since Nov. 29 as the city and Xerox work to identify the cause of faulty speed readings.

This month the city and Xerox ran 189 test runs past the Cold Spring Lane cameras, which have generated inaccurate tickets at least as far back as February. The tests did not identify a problem with the equipment, and Xerox has recommended "third-party validation testing."

The company recently completed an audit of its 75 fixed-pole cameras in Baltimore. Gilligan said the firm is analyzing it and preparing to give it to the city.

Cardin says he opposed the 2009 speed camera law and did not cast a vote. Despite his concerns, he has not advocated putting a halt to the speed camera programs.

"If we get to a point where people lose complete confidence in the system, yeah, we ought to stop, reevaluate and figure out a way to create confidence in the system," he said. "I'm not sure we're there yet."

scalvert@baltsun.com

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  • Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. The Sun regrets the error.