By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun
4:25 PM EST, November 21, 2012
Speed cameras have tagged Benjamin Parker's pickup truck 41 times in the Baltimore area over the past three years, records show — enough to have his license suspended 10 times over if those citations had been handed out by a police officer and not a machine.
Parker, a retiree who lives in Woodlawn, professed bewilderment that so many of the $40 citations have piled up, many from a stretch of Gwynns Falls Parkway in the city with a 25 mph speed limit. "I have no idea," he said when asked to explain it. "I don't even know anything about half those tickets."
Parker is one of 585 area motorists whose vehicles have amassed at least 30 tickets courtesy of the region's speed-detecting cameras since they were authorized in Maryland in 2009, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis.
He's nowhere near the most frequent offender in the Baltimore area. That distinction belongs to the driver of a Nissan SUV with North Carolina plates that has racked up 125 speed camera tickets in the city since November 2010 — four on a single day, city citation records show.
Federal law bars the state from revealing the owner's identity, but The Sun twice photographed the SUV cruising down Kelly Avenue in Mount Washington, where most of its camera tickets have been logged. The owner hasn't paid any of the tickets, leaving a balance of $5,000, and North Carolina's motor vehicle agency says the SUV's tag expired in July of last year.
More than 25,000 vehicles have received 10 or more area speed camera citations, and 3,000 have at least 20, The Sun found. More than 170,000 vehicles have at least four. Drivers who get four police officer-issued tickets within two years for speeding 10 mph or more over the limit collect enough "points" on their license to have it suspended.
The number of repeat offenders shocked officials who oversee Baltimore's 3-year-old speed camera program. "Wow" was the response of Frank Murphy, the city's deputy transportation director for operations, after hearing about cars slapped with scores of tickets.
Murphy said the department hasn't tracked repeat offenders because it has focused on larger trends with the speed camera program. In any case, he's not sure there's any way to get some people to slow down: "Some people are just going to be scofflaws."
Sen. James N. Robey, who sponsored the state's 2009 speed camera law, called the findings a big surprise. Robey, a Howard County Democrat who previously served as county executive and police chief, said he would have guessed that no vehicle had more than 10 or 15 tickets.
But because speed camera tickets are sent to a vehicle's registered owner — the camera can't tell who is driving — Robey said it's "not practical" to consider imposing stiffer penalties once the same car gets a certain number of tickets.
Unlike paper tickets handed to a driver by a police officer, camera citations don't add points that can result in a driver's license suspension or revocation. Nor do they affect auto insurance rates or coverage. However, failure to pay can lead to an unpleasant surprise: The Motor Vehicle Administration will block a vehicle's registration renewal for unpaid tickets, while tacking on a $30 "flag" fee of its own for each citation.
The North Carolina-registered Nissan received its first speed camera ticket Nov. 5, 2010, city records show. Its photo was snapped by the camera in the 1900 block of Kelly Ave., which like all city speed camera locations is in an officially designated school zone.
Since then, that camera has taken pictures of the SUV repeatedly as it rolled past at recorded speeds of at least 37 mph. Nearly all of the 125 tickets are for speeding on Kelly Avenue. On April 4, the SUV was caught there four different times. The most recent was on Sept. 25 of this year.
While the vehicle's owner hasn't paid a penny, other repeat offenders have: The owner of a Dodge with 115 citations has paid 75 of them, records show, translating to $3,000 in fine payments.
Bankruptcy got at least one motorist off the hook. A Chevy Malibu had accumulated 40 unpaid tickets by December 2011, when the car's MVA registration was due to expire. Ordinarily the MVA would have blocked the registration. But that same month, the motorist filed for bankruptcy, court records show, wiping out the fines she owed the city and allowing her to renew the car's registration.
The Malibu has since gotten at least 30 more speed camera tickets, records show — all unpaid. Efforts to reach the Forest Park woman weren't successful.
Parker, the Woodlawn retiree, took another route: He challenged his tickets in District Court.
"When I first got a couple tickets, I paid them," he recalled. "Then they started hitting every week. I said, Come on, I'm not going to fool with this. I'm going to court."
In August he appeared before Judge Kathleen M. Sweeney at the Wabash Avenue courthouse to challenge 27 citations.
He pleaded not guilty to all. In some cases his defense fell flat, such as when he denied his Chevy pickup was going 38 mph in a 25 mph zone on Druid Hill Avenue, saying, "I'm not a speeder."
"You could fool me," Sweeney shot back.
But going to court proved well worth Parker's time: Sweeney threw out 17 of his 27 citations.
She dismissed three after an official with the city's speed camera contractor said there was no video footage, even though the cameras should have recorded it.
And the judge found Parker not guilty on more than 10 others because other vehicles were visible alongside his pickup truck in the recorded images that the contractor presented as evidence.
Even when Sweeney found him guilty by a preponderance of the evidence, she sometimes cut his fine. He wound up owing $330, far less than the $1,080 it would have cost him to pay the tickets.
Afterward Parker expressed frustration with the speed camera program, saying it's difficult to defend against a photo months after the fact. He questioned the accuracy of the devices. But he acknowledged that he might not always obey the speed limit, and said getting the tickets had been a wake-up call.
"I do the speed limit," he said. "I really do."
Maybe so. On Sept. 4, his pickup got another ticket, this time from a speed camera in the 5100 block of Windsor Mill Road.
The Sun's investigation also included a broad look at speed cameras throughout out the area and found that the tickets themselves can be inaccurate, and the process unfair. Since the investigation was published, local and state officials have called for greater oversight, a city councilman announced plans for a public hearing and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has pledged to strive for "a zero-error program."
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