Maryland’s General Assembly has certainly been busy with legislation regarding its use of speed enforcement cameras, which were approved in 2009. So far this year, the House of Delegates has heard no fewer than seven bills regarding the subject. These run the gamut from common sense measures regarding the calibration of these cameras to extremely controversial provisions altering the meaning of due process.
The motivation behind HB 1044 [Full Text] is fairly easy to understand. The Municipality of Baltimore City has had a spotty record of accuracy and accountability with their speed camera program. Over the last 3 years, Baltimore City has issued over 2,000 erroneous tickets based on three speed cameras that were set up to enforce the wrong speed limit. The city has reluctantly issued refunds for all of these citations, but this bill seeks to prevent the issue from reoccurring. If passed, it would require all speed cameras to meet a minimum quality standard and be inspected and calibrated by an independant laboratory, not affiliated with the manufacturor or the municipality or company that operates it. That’s not all that it does, however, it also requires that calibration information be a part of the public record, that drivers who are issued a speed camera citation be allowed to use the image as evidence of their innocence, and it prohibits private contractors from collecting fees for operating speed cameras based upon the number of citations that are issued. Overall, this bill includes numerous, behind-the-scenes tweaks that will make the process of issuing speed camera tickets more transparent and fair to the public at large.
Somewhat more controversial is SB 57 [Full Text], also known as HB 326. This bill would have altered the definition of a work zone to prohibit the use of work zone speed cameras while there are no construction crews actually working. Its supporters asserted that using speed cameras in such a manner only serves to raise revenue at the expense of motorists. Its detractors wish to keep the current, 24/7 usage of speed cameras in work zones because narrower lanes and adjustments to traffic patterns make driving in a work zone more dangerous, regardless of the absence of workers. This bill was stopped in both the Senate Judicial Proceedings and House Environmental Matters Committees. When this measure failed, its Senate sponsors reintroduced it as an amendment to a separate bill, SB 486. This amendment was defeated by a 23-22 vote on Thursday.
Unamended, however, SB 486 [Full Text] is far more controversial than the defeated amendment ever could have been. This bill, if approved, will authorize the privatization of certain law enforcement functions with regard to speed cameras. Currently, when a speed camera is triggered, the image is reviewed be a law enforcement officer for the final determination of whether or not a citation will be issued. Under the proposed law, municipalities will be authorized to hire private contractors to take over this function. This allows law enforcement officers to spend more time physically patrolling the streets, but it also allows these citations to be issued by contractors with less accountability for wrongfully issued citations. This bill has passed the Senate, and is now pending approval by the House of Delegates.
Perhaps more troubling than that, however, is HB 1030 [Full Text]. This bill, if signed into law, would remove judges from the hearings that result from a challenge to a speed camera ticket in Prince George’s County. These challenges would instead be heard by an attorney, who would be paid based upon the total value of all speed camera fines paid. A defendant who wishes to appeal this attorney’s decision would then have to file an exception, thereby requesting a trial before a judge. These proceedings, unlike a traditional appeal, would be limited only to the aspects of the attorney’s decisions that the defendant listed as objectionable in the exception. This makes it much more difficult for a defendant to overturn a wrongfully issued fine, and creates a system under which private law offices profit directly from this increasingly restrictive appeals process. It is also worth noting that the Delegate who authored this bill is Tiffany Alston, from Prince George’s County. Delegate Alston was indicted late last year on allegations that she added an attorney from her own law firm to the state’s payroll, to be paid by public funds rather than from the firm’s coffers.
With bills like these on their agenda, the only thing that is certain for Maryland’s lawmakers in the days ahead is the controversy that will surround them.