The state Motor Vehicle Administration won't renew a vehicle owner's registration if it has an unpaid camera ticket. The agency also charges $30 to remove the "flag" it places on a registration file for each unpaid citation. The MVA has collected $12.4 million in such flag fees, which works out to more than 413,000 unpaid tickets.
Sen. James N. Robey, a Howard County Democrat who sponsored Maryland's speed camera legislation, said he found it "unbelievable" people could amass so many tickets. "That number is surprising, it really is," he said.
Beating tickets in court
Anyone who gets a speed-camera ticket in Maryland has the right to challenge it in District Court. Very few bother. But those who take the time have decent odds of winning, at least in Baltimore City.
The Sun reviewed 13 speed-camera sessions overseen by five judges at the city's Wabash Avenue courthouse. In more than half of the 415 cases, judges dismissed the ticket or made a not-guilty finding. Two judges, Melissa Copeland and Catherine Curran O'Malley, sided with motorists 75 percent of the time.
A third judge spoke critically of the system even as she found drivers guilty. After hearing a motorist complain that the automated citation essentially declared him guilty until proven innocent, Judge Rachel Cogen responded: "If you want to change the statute, I'm with you."
Unlike most court cases where the government is represented by a city attorney, in speed-camera hearings the city relies on testimony from its contractor, who stands opposite the accused motorist with a laptop full of data from the cameras. Each case takes only minutes for judges to hear and decide.
Some motorists arrive in court with the facts clearly on their side. Parkville resident David Smith stood before Copeland to appeal a citation that showed a license plate ending in 'O,' whereas his ends in 'J.' The judge dismissed it, adding, "The court apologizes for the error and the fact you had to come down here this morning."
On another day, Jocelyn Morris of Northeast Baltimore challenged two tickets that claimed she was speeding in the 400 block of Cherry Hill Road and, 26 seconds later, speeding in the 1200 block of the same road. For that to be possible, Morris would have to have been driving more than 100 mph.
"These really are the same time, within seconds," Cogen said after studying the two citations. The judge found Morris not guilty for both tickets.
Another city resident, Steven Histon, fought two tickets that arrived in his mailbox around the same time. He was about to pay them when he noticed something odd.
It wasn't just that the automated cameras had caught his SUV speeding twice on the same day, or that both citations came from the same stretch of North Charles Street. The tickets had also been logged a mere second apart. And while one had his car clocked at 42 mph, the other said 60 mph.
In court, a Xerox official made no attempt to defend either ticket, conceding, "It looks like a mistake was made." The judge tossed out both of Histon's citations.
A number of motorists appeared in court with tickets whose speed-camera photographs showed multiple vehicles — cases that should have been rejected before they were mailed, and which judges said did not show conclusive evidence of guilt.
And scores of motorists saw their speed-camera citations dismissed by the courts because of a lack of evidence they never knew should have existed to begin with: a video snippet of their car in motion.
The city's speed camera citations are covered in fine print. There is a statement, for example, saying that the three photos — two showing a car's progression and one zooming in on the tag — are evidence of a violation of the speed limit.
But nowhere on the citations does it say there is usually also a video clip of the alleged speeding, and that a contractor will likely play it in court for the judge. Benjamin Parker said he was stunned to learn of the video when he went to court to appeal 27 tickets. "I don't think that was right," he said. "If you knew you had a video, you could defend yourself better."
Talbot, the Xerox executive, said the video is "just supplemental evidence." Yet some judges use it to guide their decisions, and even consider it essential evidence.
Both O'Malley — whose husband, Governor O'Malley, signed the speed-camera bill into law — and Copeland dismissed tickets whenever video was not available, even when the citations were logged by portable camera units, which Xerox says do not record video.
Copeland explained her reasoning from the bench this way: "I don't believe as a judge that I can make a determination of your speed in a still photo. I believe, since it's a moving violation, I should have evidence of your vehicle moving."