Counties skirt intent of state speed camera law

Federal Hill resident Sean O'Connor wants to fact-check the automated speed camera ticket that he got in Baltimore County. But he can't.

"It is not precise enough," said O'Connor, 27, who got the ticket in September alleging he was traveling 47 mph on Goucher Boulevard in Towson. "I would love a more accurate and reliable method of knowing that this ticket is valid, rather than just trusting the computerized radar gun that's been sitting there."

Unlike Baltimore City, whose speed camera system supplies motorists with two precise, time-stamped photos as evidence that they were violating the law, Baltimore County, Howard County and the State Highway Administration give motorists pictures with times rounded off to the second, proving only that the vehicle drove past the camera, a Baltimore Sun review has found.

Some state lawmakers who authorized speed cameras in Maryland are calling that limitation a clear violation of the law's intent, while others think it's so egregious that they want each of the million-plus tickets issued by those jurisdictions to be refunded or dismissed.

"You have to prove guilt, and it sounds like the jurisdictions other than Baltimore City aren't doing anything to do it," said State Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "When we wrote the law, the assumption was they were going to do it the proper way. I guess you can't assume."

The Sun has published a series of articles in recent weeks revealing numerous erroneous speed camera tickets, focusing primarily on the system in Baltimore City. To prove that speeding tickets were issued in error, it used pictures from the cameras to measure the distance that vehicles traveled and then compared that distance to each picture's time stamps, which were recorded down to the thousandth of a second.

If a vehicle traveled 30 feet in half a second, for instance, its speed translated to 41 mph. If it traveled that same distance in 3-tenths of a second, it was going 68 mph.

The newspaper quickly began receiving complaints from motorists beyond the city who felt unfairly accused. But when it tried to analyze their tickets, it found that the other jurisdictions rounded time off to the second, which often resulted in two photographs stamped with identical times, making verification of the speed impossible.

Baltimore County, Howard County and the State Highway Administration all defend their lack of specific times on speed camera tickets, saying state law only requires that they post a time, not a specific one.

"Baltimore County has applied the law as it is written," says Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County police. "The law says nothing about what increment of time should be used on the photos."

But lawmakers and legislative analysts involved with the crafting of the legislation that authorized speed cameras say that practice is skirting the intent of the bill.

"It was so people could contest the ticket," says Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Democrat, of the photo and time requirement and the legislature's purpose in writing it into the law. "I remember it well. It was to verify the speed and to set up a scenario that they could contest it in court."

"I think you need to take the model that the city uses and require it," said Brochin, adding that he intends to submit legislation in Annapolis next year requiring just that. "And more importantly, say 'If a ticket doesn't have this, it's not valid and a judge can't rule a person guilty.'"

State law requires all speed camera citations issued in Maryland to include "at least two time-stamped images of the motor vehicle that include the same stationary object near the motor vehicle." The law does not say how specific the time stamps must be.

Howard County has two speed cameras, which produce citations that list only the hour, minute and second in which the two photos taken — not specific enough to draw conclusions about speed.

Police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn says the department's understanding was that the law's two-photo requirement was simply to "demonstrate that the vehicle is in motion," not to serve as evidence of its speed. She said Howard's citations are in "full compliance" with the law, which "does not specify the increment of time that should be displayed."

"Because the vendor's standard time stamp complies with the written law, and has been approved in the courts, the issue of including the fraction of a second has simply never been discussed by the police program managers, or raised by a judge or legislator," Llewellyn said.

Baltimore County, likewise, lists the time of its speed camera photos only to the second. Armacost, the police spokeswoman, said the agency believes the photos were meant only to identify the vehicle and confirm it is in motion — not as evidence of speeding.

"It says nothing about the photos as a tool for the motorist's own speed analysis," she said of the law's language.

The State Highway Administration, whose speed camera program was recently criticized in a state audit, lists the time only to the second as well. The agency defended its lack of specificity by saying it was not required to be more specific. The two photos are only supposed to indicate the time the violation occurred, a spokeswoman said.