“It’s best to just write a check.”
That’s the consensus from frustrated motorists who have tried unsuccessfully to fight some of the more than 70,000 speeding tickets issued by the District’s new electronic radar cameras.
Motorists from the District, Maryland and Virginia have told The Washington Times that showing up at the D.C. Bureau of Traffic Adjudication in Northeast to fight the tickets in court brings no success.
“The judge told me: ‘No argument. Either admit to speeding, tell us who was driving or file for appeal,’” said Rose Moultrie of Suitland, who went to court Wednesday to plead her case.
She waited until 11:30 a.m. in a room filled with frustrated people who, like her, were there to contest tickets. Mrs. Moultrie, 40, thought she would be able to question the officer who operated the camera that day to explain how he caught her speeding. But that wasn’t the case.
Area law firms say they are being swamped with calls from people looking for a way to fight back, but the lawyers contacted by The Times say the District has stacked the deck against motorists.
“There is no defense if you get one of these tickets,” said Jeff Zeigler, a lawyer with Baltimore-based Weinstock, Friedman & Friedman.
He said drivers’ options are limited. “The only thing you can do is say someone else was driving. But then they want to know who that was and where they live,” said Mr. Zeigler, who has practiced law for eight years.
Mrs. Moultrie, like others, assumed the U.S. courts’ adversarial system of prosecution meant she would have the right to face her accuser in court.
But lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the International Municipal Lawyers Association and Georgetown University Law School say the accused have fewer rights when it comes to the photo-radar and red-light cameras.
“The citations are not criminal moving violations because they ticket the car, not the person. So there is no requirement for the officer to appear in court just like a parking ticket,” Mr. Zeigler said.
“It probably wouldn’t make any difference if the cop did show, because judges are hard-pressed to listen these days,” he said.
Not all judges, however, like the idea of turning law enforcement into a revenue producer, say critics of the red-light and speed-camera programs.
In San Diego, Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Styn threw out 292 tickets in early August issued by camera equipment because the involvement of the private contractor operating the system violated state law. Judge Styn criticized the idea of a private company extracting fines from motorists and said the police put too much authority in the company’s hands.
In the District’s setup, that private company is Affiliated Computer Services, a Dallas-based firm that operates the District’s five mobile and two stationary cameras. The cameras, which made their official debut on Washington streets in August, are monitored by police officers working on overtime and paid by ACS. Since then, the company has issued more than 70,000 tickets 7,667 in August, 23,553 in September and 42,355 in October. The tickets have generated almost $1.4 million in fines, with $848,000 going to the city and the rest to ACS.
ACS charges a flat fee of $29 per photo-radar ticket issued and $32.50 for each red-light ticket. The remaining portion of the fine goes to the city.
It’s extortion as far as Brian Cooper, 56, of Hyattsville, is concerned. “I would fight them if I had a reasonable suspicion I would get a fair shake in court,” he said.
Blaming the ticket on someone who borrowed or stole your car only works if the car owner can get the other driver to own up to the ticket.
Kevin P. Morison, spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department, said a person has 30 days from the time the ticket is mailed to ask for a hearing or give another person’s name as the driver on the day the ticket was issued. The person implicated has another 30 days to respond. If he or she denies responsibility for the car on the day it was photographed, the fine must be paid by the registered owner within those 60 days. After 60 days, the fine doubles, he said.
The ultimate responsibility, Mr. Morison said, always lies with the owner.
Jessica Taylor, 29, of the Ledroit Park neighborhood in Northwest, said she thought she had a good argument: “There were other cars around me within the field of the radar on my ticket,” illustrated by a triangle superimposed on the camera photo.
Not good enough, Mr. Zeigler said: Pull out the checkbook.
Mrs. Moultrie considered filing for an appeal, but thought otherwise after the appellate process was explained to her.
An appeal in D.C. traffic-adjudication court costs $45.
Here’s how it works: the person must pay $35 for court fees and $10 for a transcript of the appeal and the fees are nonrefundable. Mrs. Moultrie opted to pay the fine, because even if she had won, she would only recoup $5 from her $50 citation.
“It’s a ‘who do you believe?’ situation, and they just called me a liar,” she said. “Why bother? I decided to just write the check.”
The Times reported yesterday that George Brill, owner of Brill Plumbing and Heating, received a speed-camera ticket that states: “Mr. Brill was going 27 mph in a 25 mph zone.” He paid the $30 fine.
Mr. Morison said tickets like Mr. Brill’s are mistakes. “What happened in the case with Mr. Brill was the operator did not properly set the threshold.”
Fines paid in such cases, he said, would be reimbursed.
Mr. Morison would not say how far above the speed limit a ticket has to be before police would rule out voiding the ticket, but he said anyone with questions can call 202/756-5884.