Gov. Martin O'Malley last year signed legislation allowing Maryland localities to set up speed cameras in school zones because, he claimed, that would make the streets safer. Now that several of these municipal photo-enforcement systems are up and running, it’s hard to argue with a straight face that they are anything other than a naked grab for cash.
Take Forest Heights, a town in Prince George’s County where ticketing commenced in April. Under the new state law, officials allowed a private company, Optotraffic, to set up a mobile camera on Indian Head Highway in a freshly created “school zone” that, although it’s nowhere near a school, just happens to be a high-traffic commuter access route to the Beltway. Considering the District of Columbia has been hiding its robotic cameras behind bushes and bridges for nearly a decade, such chicanery is hardly surprising.
What’s new is that complaints about the accuracy of the laser-based speed-measuring devices and heavy-handed collection tactics are growing. Two affected individuals shared with The Washington Times their stories of how they had been mailed photo tickets from the Route 210 camera in July. Both decided to go ahead and pay the $40 fine while making sure to keep their eyes fixed on their speedometers while driving below the speed limit through the purported school zone so they wouldn’t receive any additional surprises in the mail. It didn’t matter; more tickets came anyway. A Fort Washington resident told us that the town accused her of driving past the camera at 70 mph at 8:35 a.m. the day after she dropped her first ticket payment in the mail.
“There’s nothing wrong with my Honda,” the second victim, Tanya Butler, told The Washington Times. “My cruise control works fine. You’re not going to give me two tickets when I’m using speed control. Right there, I said, ‘No,’ there’s something definitely wrong.”
With no actual witness to the alleged crime, it would be difficult for average citizens to challenge the system, but both drivers wanted to have their day in court. Though the drivers promptly followed the instructions on the citation, Forest Heights refused to set a court date. Instead, the private company sent threatening letters on the town’s letterhead stating, “You failed to pay your fine by the due date specified on your original citation. As a result, you owe additional fees.” The letter to Ms. Butler stated that her vehicle registration would be suspended today unless she immediately sent a check for $325. Both ticket recipients expressed frustration about not receiving any return phone calls or attempts to resolve the problem until they followed the advice on the StopBigBrotherMD.org website and contacted the mayor directly. Forest Heights officials were equally unresponsive to requests from this paper for a response to these complaints.
The Old Line State’s Constitution guarantees the right of its citizens to a trial as “one of the greatest securities of the lives, liberties and estate of the People.” State and local officials don’t care. There’s no need to guarantee accuracy, return phone calls or provide due process as long as the revenue keeps coming. That’s why Mr. O'Malley’s cameras should be retired.