Cameras at red lights challenged

Circuit Court judge to hear lawyer's argument today

`A poorly drawn statute'

Highest appeal of law that brought Arundel over $300,000 in 2001

Annapolis

March 05, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The easy thing would have been to pay the $75 ticket after a red-light camera snapped photos allegedly showing his SUV running the light. Or, after a challenge in District Court, to be satisfied when a judge reduced the fine.

Instead, a lawyer from Davidsonville is challenging the application of the law that allows cameras to monitor intersections. Samuel L. Serio is scheduled to take his argument before an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge today. If that doesn't work, he vows, he'll press his case to the state's highest court.

"It's a poorly drawn statute," Serio said. "It's the principle of the thing, that they pass a bogus law."

Anne Arundel County prosecutors, who would not discuss the case before trial, said this is the first appeal to the county's Circuit Court of a red-light camera ticket.

The public has a love-hate relationship with the cameras, in place in more than a dozen jurisdictions in the state. Some people maintain they are a cash-grabbing manifestation of Big Brother. Others view them as a welcome curb on heavy-footed motorists.

Three 8-inch-by-10-inch color glossies taken by a Lockheed-Martin IMS camera show what is purported to be Serio's Isuzu Trooper going through a red light at Riva Road and Route 665 nearly a year ago.

Serio was found guilty in August in District Court in Annapolis. He was fined $20 and ordered to pay $20 in court costs. He said that just about everything about the ticket and hearing before Judge James W. Dryden infuriated him.

Serio, who practices criminal and civil law in Prince George's County, plans to contest the ticket on several grounds.

Among them, he said, a lone Lockheed employee, no government official, sat at the prosecutor's table. That is different from what takes place in courtrooms in some jurisdictions, such as in Prince George's County, where police or prosecutors are prepared to prove ownership of a vehicle, he said.

In Howard County, an assistant county attorney, not a prosecutor, is in the courtroom.

When Serio went to court, he found that he had the burden of showing that it was not his car or that he was not the driver. His argument that the ticket bore a digital reproduction of an officer's signature instead of a real signature carried no weight.

Serio said it is unfair for the state to treat camera tickets differently from those written by an officer.

Motor Vehicle Administration spokeswoman Anna Hoffmann said a police-issued ticket for running a red light earns the driver two points. A camera-generated one does not because "you can't verify who is driving the vehicle," she said.

Serio is challenging the role of Lockheed, which operates the cameras and receives a per-ticket fee of what Serio argued is easy money for the county and company.

"The government can't share my money with Lockheed-Martin," he said.

And the cameras bring in money. Anne Arundel County received $384,909.50 in revenue last year from 9,777 tickets issued at its four red-light camera locations, according to county police. Lockheed gets $26.50 per $75 ticket, said Officer Charles Ravenell, police spokesman.

Ravenell said there is nothing wrong with the way cases go through District Court.

"The purpose is to prevent traffic accidents at these intersections and decrease the number of violations at these intersections," Ravenell said. "These are civil violations. Therefore an officer need not be present, but a person from Lockheed is."

Most of Serio's arguments are shaky, said Abraham A. Dash, a University of Maryland School of Law professor.

Dash, who has paid one such ticket, said one claim made by Serio that might have merit is an argument that led to 290 tickets being dismissed last year in San Diego. There, a judge ruled the arrangement was inherently unfair because Lockheed's arrangement with the city for a per-ticket share of the fines created motivation to issue tickets for profit.

That ruling has no effect in Maryland, though after it was issued, Howard County switched to paying Lockheed a flat rate.

"You are responsible for the car that is registered in your name. If your car is involved in anything [police] believe to be wrong, the onus is on you to show it was not your car or not you," Dash said. "The license plate is all the proof they need."

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