Speed Cameras in Baltimore County Take a Hit

A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge ruled last week that Baltimore County’s contract with its speed camera vendor is illegal, because it allows the contractor to get a cut of every ticket generated. Although Judge Susan M. Souder’s ruling dismissed only a single ticket, this decision is believed to be the first time a judge has ruled against the legality of this so-called “bounty system” practice.

maryland speed camerasHere, Baltimore County’s contractor, ACS Xerox, received a whopping $19 from every $40 ticket. As you might imagine, the bounty system has raised many objections because it incentivizes contractors to maximize the number of tickets issued, which can lead to mistakenly generated tickets. In one instance, a motorist was cited for traveling 57 mph in a 25 mph zone although the driver was sitting still.

Maryland law, however, specifically seeks to eliminate profit incentives by banning bounty systems. Transportation Article § 21-810(j)(2) of the Maryland Annotated Code states, “If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid.” However, this restriction is effectively nullified as long as contracts avoid using the term “operate.” The Office of the Attorney General even provided an advisory letter in 2008 instructing Montgomery County to change the wording of its contract to specify that the county, rather than the contractor, operated the speed cameras, thus skirting the restriction.

The present case is not the only lawsuit that has been introduced. The bounty system previously ignited a legal clash in 2008 when ticket recipients sued Montgomery County and several municipalities in the county. The Maryland Court of Appeals, however, ruled that the plaintiffs did not have the power to sue under the law, but did not decide whether governments can pay contractors a contingency fee based on the number of tickets generated by the speed cameras.This decision resolved those unanswered questions, at least for the time being. Here, the contract between Xerox and Baltimore County specified that “the contract will operate 22 active speed cameras and 15 active red light cameras at all times.” Xerox’s photo enforcement director testified at trial that Xerox reviewed potential citations besides furnishing, maintaining, and installing the camera systems. However, Baltimore County maintained that the county, not Xerox, operated the system.

Judge Souder dismissed this argument, ruling that local jurisdictions cannot evade the ban on bounty systems by claiming that the contractor did not operate the speed camera system. In particular, both the language of the contract and the witness testimonies, in this case, supported the idea that Xerox was involved in operating the cameras. In the meantime, proposals have been brought forward suggesting an overhaul to speed camera programs. Some advocate for better oversight and accountability, contending that contractors who issue erroneous tickets should pay a fine, while others believe that speed camera programs should simply be scrapped altogether.

This circuit court decision is not binding on anyone else but it is persuasive, the decision will be food for thought for other judges, and will probably open up avenues for many other speed camera ticket recipients to challenge their citations in court.

Maryland Speed Camera Laws

Speed cameras are allowed in Maryland.  There are two laws from the Maryland Transportation Code that cover speed cameras.  The first,  section 21-809, allows for speed cameras on local roads and in designated school zones.  The second, § 810, allows the state and counties to do the same in highway work zones.  Mild speed is not the target.   These speed monitoring systems on target cars that are driving “at least 12 mph above the posted speed limit.”  The law requires that the systems be calibrated (which is a common problem), mandating “an annual calibration check performed by an independent calibration laboratory” that certifies the device is getting the speed right.

Speed Cameras in Maryland

Traffic enforcement vendors can make a lot of coin.  They have been fighting like crazy to snag our business.  There are tons of companies like ACS   — like Redflex Traffic Systems, Optotraffic,  Jenoptik, American Traffic Solutions California (ATS) — who want the riches that a big county like Baltimore County can bring.   Money makes everyone do crazy things.  It is not just the companies.  Cash starved Maryland counties love the revenue these efforts can provide at a much lower cost than hiring police officers to do.   It is no wonder the system is a mess.

Still, my view on this is clear. I think red light and speed cameras are worth it if they really decrease fatalities and serious injuries on Maryland’s roads. Do they do this? Honestly, I really don’t know. I’m no epidemiologist, but I find serious flaws in every study I have seen that looks at this issue. I’m fine with the “Big Brother” aspect to it because I don’t think you have a ton of privacy rights as you go down the highway. I also don’t care if someone is making a buck off of it or if, now and again, they get it wrong and “convict” an innocent man. It is a small fine. But it has to actually do what it is intended to do: make us safer. We need to find out whether it accomplishes this goal. Because if it does not, it is just destructive.

The Cosby Show Explains the Problem

This case is not even about that issue. There was a Cosby Show episode (2020 update: Bill Cosby?  Really?  Unbelievable, right?) once where Lisa Bonet brought home her fiancé without ever even mentioning him to the family. Cosby told her, “He may be filet mignon, but you served him to us on a garbage can top.” That is what they may be doing with these speed cameras. Now, all we are talking about is whether the contractor is getting one over as opposed to the actual issue of whether these cameras are making us safer.

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  • Two Maryland Cases of Interest
    • In Baker v. Montgomery County in 2011,  the Maryland high court put the lid on a lot of these speed/red light camera battles by ruling that Maryland law does not allow for a class-action lawsuit against a specific camera program.  Specifically, the court found that Maryland’s Transportation Article, § 21-809 does not give an implied private cause of action to sue for defects in the speed camera system being used.    
    • In State v. Cates, four police officers tried to fight speed camera tickets on a technicality because they did not own the vehicle.  Maryland Court of Appeals shot down its appeal.
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