Big Brother gets bolder

Move over, Chicago. You’ve got nothing on Baltimore. So you let dead people vote in your elections? That’s nothing. Baltimore lets dead police officers issue traffic citations.

Under Maryland law, a traffic citation issued to the owner of a motor vehicle “caught” by a stoplight or speed camera must contain a sworn statement signed by a police officer stating that the officer has studied the camera images and that the vehicle was in violation of the law. Last week, WBAL-TV News discovered that some 2,000 stoplight camera citations were issued over the signature of an officer who was dead at the time of alleged violations.

The officer who had “signed” the citations was Baltimore City Police Officer James Fowler, who was killed in a traffic accident back in September. The problem came to light because someone who received one of the citations — for a violation that allegedly had occurred last month — showed it to a retired city police officer who had once worked with Fowler.

A police department spokesman said the problem was caused by a “computer glitch” and blamed it on the private contractor that operates the cameras. He said the department “does not blanket approve citations”. I don’t know whether he realizes it or not — or maybe he just thinks the rest of us are too stupid to realize it — but those two statements are contradictory. If a “computer glitch” was responsible, then the officer who really reviewed the citations should have caught the error. That is, if an actual, flesh-and-blood officer really did review the citations.

I seriously doubt the mandatory “official” review ever took place. Why? Because I doubt that any reviews take place. reported just last week that a motorist who hadn’t been in Baltimore City in years was cited for a violation that allegedly occurred in December. In the photo accompanying the citation the car is barely visible and the license plate is unreadable. And last year, 932 citations from just one camera in Baltimore City were issued in error.

A couple of Maryland legislators want to fix that. Delegate Barbara Frush and State Senator James Rosapepe (both from the same Anne Arundel/Prince Georges County district) have introduced a bill that would eliminate the requirement for police review of the citations. That’s right. Instead the citations could be reviewed by “AN AUTHORIZED PERSON TRAINED IN SPEED MONITORING SYSTEM ENFORCEMENT AND employed by or under contract with an agency…” In other words, they could be reviewed by an employee of the camera operator — which has every incentive to maximize the number of citations issued.

When you consider that over a two-year period Montgomery County rejected nearly 25,000 citations before mailing because of “no violation/operator error”, you can appreciate how important review is. And you can also appreciate why state and local governments want to eliminate review. If those 25,000 citations had all gone out and had all been paid, the county would have had $1 million in additional revenue to share with the camera operator.

The problem with speed and stoplight cameras is that they are so irresistible to cash-strapped local governments. They may cite safety as the reason for installing them, but their real motive is generating revenue. This is undoubtedly the reason that the Baltimore County Council earlier this month voted to lift the 15-camera cap on speed cameras and allow an unlimited number of cameras in “school” zones, including so-called “roving” cameras. After the party-line vote (Democrats for, Republicans against — naturally), one county resident commented, “They think we are ATM machines. That is a tax.”  Since the county’s existing speed cameras have not reduced the frequency of accidents in the locations where they are installed, one can only conclude that revenue, not safety, is the motivating factor behind the council’s action.

Several jurisdictions have written anticipated revenue from speed cameras into their budgets. But there is a problem with that. Once motorists become accustomed to the cameras, they learn to slow down when approaching them. As a result, the anticipated revenue fails to materialize. It is then that governments get creative with gimmicks such as lowering speed limits unexpectedly, obscuring signs warning of photo-enforcement, etc. We have already seen how local governments have shortened yellow-light times at intersections with stoplight cameras in an effort to generate more citations for running red lights.

I have written here in the past about the serious civil liberties issues these cameras raise. They effectively strip of us of one of our most fundamental Constitutional protections, namely the right to confront our accusers in a court of law.

Oh, well. When did the Constitution ever stand in the way of politicians stealing from us?

One thought on “Big Brother gets bolder”

  1. If you’re not breaking any laws you have nothing to fear from automated enforcement, right?

    Oceania, here we come!

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