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Shot with own speed camera, D.C. cop fires back

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Metropolitan Police Department Sgt. Mark Robinson tried for months to persuade D.C. traffic officials to rescind more than 100,000 defective citations he said were a result of unreliable speed cameras, but when he got caught by one of them himself in the Third Street Tunnel, he took a different course.

"I thought about it and realized, no problem, this is a perfect opportunity to challenge these citations," the 22-year veteran of the police force told The Washington Times.

The result was a decision in his favor by a hearing examiner that could brighten the day of anyone who has ever been caught by a speed camera — and cause nightmares for budget-stressed city officials who depend on them. If upheld, that decision could force D.C. officials to return $1.8 million in penalties associated with more than 14,000 tickets that misidentified the posted speed limit.

A hearing examiner for the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles agreed with the sergeant turned whistleblower that the tunnel speed limit was improperly enforced and was referring the matter to the DMV's chief hearing examiner for further review of potential defects that could affect thousands of tickets issued from cameras in the tunnel.

Sgt. Robinson, one of the principal radar instructors since the inception of police department's automated speed-enforcement program, was transferred out of the automated traffic enforcement unit after he accused civilian program manager Lisa Sutter of various improprieties, including failing to rescind more than 100,000 defective citations from portable speed cameras. He was cited last month for driving 11 to 15 miles per hour over the posted speed limit in the tunnel.

However, because he had complained to his superiors to no avail about defective citations in the tunnel, he said, he knew that appealing the citation was necessary to get the matter addressed properly.

The posted speed limit in the tunnel, which runs from Interstate 395 to Massachusetts Avenue, ordinarily is 45 mph. But because of a construction zone in place since October, the posted speed limit has been 40 mph. According to Title 18 of the D.C. Municipal Regulations, the police department is required to enforce the posted speed limit, which also is known as the "absolute speed limit."

Yet Sgt. Robinson's ticket and the police department's photo-radar log showed the speed limit in the tunnel as 45 mph. So, based on the discrepancy between that and the posted — or absolute — speed limit of 40 mph, veteran DMV Hearing Examiner Matthew Uzukwu dismissed Sgt. Robinson's citation on Dec. 3.

"Although the actual posted speed limit, shown in [Sgt. Robinson's] photos, is below the 45 mph speed limit stated in the deployment log, consideration will be given the testimony, and the ticket dismissed," Mr. Uzukwu wrote.

Now that Mr. Uzukwu has ruled that the District lacks evidence to sustain the citations from the speed cameras in the Third Street Tunnel, Sgt. Robinson argues that the police department and the DMV need to take corrective action.

"The hearing examiner stated that he would bring the matter to the attention of the chief hearing examiner because it poses an issue at the camera locations," he said, noting that the District recently changed the speed limit signs on Benning Road and I-295 because of similar discrepancies that could affect citations issued from speed cameras at those locations.

Corrective action could be costly for the city. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Times, the DMV disclosed last month that it issued 14,167 speeding tickets from the cameras in the Third Street Tunnel from October 2011 through Dec. 17 for fines totaling $1,814,150.

Neither DMV nor Metropolitan Police Department officials responded to written questions submitted by The Times about how — or whether — they intend to address the matter. In the past, police department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump has argued that the posted 40 mph speed-limit sign in the tunnel was intended for a construction zone when workers are present, but that in any event, the department enforced only a speed limit of 45 mph.

But given the hearing examiner's ruling, Sgt. Robinson countered, the city is obligated to investigate and correct the situation by refunding fines paid by motorists who received defective citations. Failure to do so, he argued, would be "irresponsible."

"The way to preserve the integrity of the program is to correct problems as they are brought to our attention," he said.

The Third Street Tunnel case is not the first time the Metropolitan Police Department's automated ticket unit has issued invalid speeding tickets and fines to unsuspecting motorists. Sgt. Robinson pointed to a speed-camera citation he received in November that was dismissed by a DMV hearing examiner because of the District's "failure to meet its burden of proof."

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations require that, when cameras are used to enforce speed limits, there must be secondary measurement to ensure accuracy, such as white painted lines on the road to show the distance a car traveled while recorded by the camera.

However, for reasons unknown, the automated ticket unit did not include any such secondary measures. That omission could invalidate more than 100,000 similar citations, Sgt. Robinson said, with a revenue potential of more than $10 million.

It is unclear whether the fines associated with those tickets were ever refunded.

John B. Townsend II, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the District brought in more than $55 million in automated enforcement fines last year, bolstered by an increase of fines such as the ones levied from the Third Street Tunnel of 150 percent.

Questionable practices such as occurred in the case of the tunnel tickets "make the motoring public highly suspicious of automated traffic programs," Mr. Townsend said.

"They question the integrity of the program and wonder aloud if the District is putting profits ahead of traffic safety," he said. "Once the accuracy and integrity of the system are compromised or brought in question because things are being done with a wink or a nod or on the slipshod, the program is undermined, and motorists lose confidence in law enforcement."

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