EDITORIAL: Green light for lawbreakers

Maryland high-court decision on speed cameras is a boon to scofflaws

Good news for daredevils who prefer to live on the wrong side of the law. Maryland’s Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, declared Tuesday that there is no consequence for ignoring the state’s speed-camera statute. Of course, the court wasn’t protecting speeders and red-light runners from justice. The sole interest of the Old Line State judges was to ensure Montgomery County, Rockville and Gaithersburg can continue flouting the rules.

A group of drivers had banded together to sue these local governments for violating a legal prohibition on paying private contractors to “operate” speed cameras on a per-citation basis. Yet Montgomery County’s contract specifies that its photo-ticketing vendor will be paid “at a rate of $16.25 per citation.” The county came up with the grade-school argument that the company that owns the cameras, services them, mails the tickets, collects the fines, makes the initial decision on who’s guilty, provides customer service and is in charge of public relations for the photo-ticketing enterprise is not actually “operating” the system.

In response to early legal challenges, the local jurisdictions rewrote their contracts with a disclaimer affirming the vendors did not “operate” the system. They thought this added statement verified their adherence to the law. The Court of Appeals wasn’t impressed by the semantic gimmick. “We are somewhat dubious whether an arguably self-serving, ipse dixit contract amendment moots petitioners’ claims necessarily,” the high court stated in the only sensible line in the entire ruling.

Despite the serious accusation leveled by the motorists who brought suit, the only thing Maryland’s obviously pro-camera judiciary was interested in deciding was that the public has no right to expect its officials to uphold the law. The General Assembly may have put the contingent-fee compensation ban into the statute as a means of protecting motorists from greedy cities, counties and contractors, but the high court found there is no “private cause of action to enforce this statute.” That means the programs can continue to do whatever they want and those purported protections are mere window-dressing.

Ron Ely, who has chronicled the legal violations of Maryland’s photo-enforcement business on his StopBigBrotherMD.org website, believes the ruling will embolden the scofflaw cities and counties. “The court probably felt it had no choice but to shield speed-camera programs from lawsuits because every speed-camera program has broken some part of the law,” said Mr. Ely. “There is no oversight with these programs by the state. The attorney general says it is not his job. The State Highway Administration has said it won’t intervene in local matters. This will be a green light for local governments to bend or break the rules even more.” According to Mr. Ely’s reckoning, speed cameras generate $77 million per year in revenue statewide. That’s substantial loot in these lean budgetary times.

Public officials deflect criticism over speed cameras by repeating the mantra, “If you follow the law, you won’t have a problem.” The same is true for these officials. Instead of seeking clear guidance from the high court on how to implement the speed-camera law, these officials sought to have the case thrown out on a technicality. Montgomery County and their cohorts may have received their wish, but in so doing, they lost the moral high ground.

Officials in Montgomery County, Rockville, Gaithersburg and the rest have demonstrated they don’t care about the law. All that remains is their concern for the cash.

The Washington Times

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