District judges in Baltimore threw out just over half of the 3,000 speed camera tickets they considered last year after hearing appeals from motorists, city records show.
By contrast, in the second half of 2011 (the city didn't provide records for the first half), judges upheld barely 30 percent of the driver challenges heard. And in 2010, only a quarter of ticket recipients who appealed won in court, based on limited figures given by the city.
It's not clear why judges as a group have increasingly sided with motorists — and against the machines that have cranked out more than 1.6 million $40 citations in the city since late 2009.
But the available figures show that since 2010, motorists have prevailed 45 percent of the time when judges make a guilty or not guilty finding or dismiss a city-issued ticket. That calculation does not include cases in which tickets were automatically upheld because the recipient did not show up in court.
City officials, including a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, have pushed back against the notion that speed camera tickets get tossed out with any regularity since The Baltimore Sun reported in November that judges routinely do that, based on a smaller analysis of about 415 cases.
On Nov. 26, then-city transportation director Khalil Zaied disputed the assessment in a letter to The Sun. Just under 20,000 tickets had been challenged, he noted, and judges found motorists "not liable" for 1,897 of them — "hardly enough to honestly be considered 'routinely,'" he wrote.
There's no doubt that few ticket recipients bother appealing. But what Zaied's letter didn't say is that a big chunk of those 20,000 appeals were never heard by a judge. That's because many who appeal don't show up for court. Last year, nearly 4,500 of the 7,839 challenged tickets were listed as "failure to appear." Remove those from the equation, and judges sided with drivers 52 percent of the time.
It's hard to divine reasons for the trend in favor of motorists, in part because of the wide variation in how individual judges rule. Last year, Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley sided with drivers 72 percent of the time, records show, while Judge Barbara B. Waxman upheld the speed cameras in 69 percent of those cases she heard.
O'Malley is married to Gov. Martin O'Malley, and his administration pushed for the 2009 state law allowing speed cameras in Maryland. She's the daughter of former state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
Curran, it turns out, is among those who have appealed a speeding ticket. A camera clocked his car at 42 mph on Northern Parkway in 2011. Last year he appeared before Judge Joan B. Gordon.
Barbara Curran, his wife, was driving at the time. When she reviewed the video online, she knew it was a mistake. Cars were moving, all right, but not hers. She was waiting to turn left.
"The car was absolutely still," she said. "You can't speed when you're sitting still."