Robert and Barbara Lippmann couldn't quite believe it when they got a ticket in the mail for running a red light in Baltimore. They didn't remember running any red light when they were in town for an Orioles-Phillies game in June.
But when the Pennsylvania couple got another ticket in the mail for running the same red light on the same day - six minutes later - they knew something had gone terribly wrong: The photos on the two citations were the same.
"We are not familiar with Baltimore," Barbara Lippmann wrote to the city's finance director last week. "We did not go around the block in six minutes and get back to the same place as the original violation and arrange to have the same cars in the picture as the first!"
The first ticket dated the violation at 4:23 p.m. June 27. The second ticket cited another violation at 4:29 p.m. June 27. The tickets had different violation numbers and were signed by different police officers. But the photographs were identical. The Lippmanns' car and half a dozen others are in the same places on President Street.
Asked how the Lippmanns could receive two tickets for running one red light, city officials scratched their heads. The Transportation Department said to call the Police Department. The Police Department said to call Public Works. Public Works said to call the Transportation Department.
And then the Transportation Department said to call the Finance Department. The director of that department did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
Baltimore's red-light camera program is run by a private vendor, Affiliated Computer Services Inc., which also runs cameras in Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Last year, Baltimore issued 117,000 red-light tickets at $75 each. In the first seven months of this year, 90,000 tickets were sent out, though the number of cameras has remained at 47.
By last night, ACS was taking responsibility for the Lippmanns' double tickets. Spokeswoman Janis Langley said the second ticket was a mistake and that the company will notify the Police Department. Langley said "human error in processing" that citation was the culprit, but she could not be more specific. She said the problem was not with the cameras or computer equipment.
"We're well aware of [the problem] and are in the process of trying to fix it," she said. "This type of human error occurs approximately one-half of 1 percent of the time. Nevertheless, we're in the process of instituting quality-assurance procedures to protect against any such occurrences in the future."
Citations are printed by ACS and reviewed by Baltimore police officers. Agent Donny Moses, a police spokesman, said the department has several officers who review the citations before they are sent out, so it is impossible for one officer to know if another officer is reviewing citations based on the same photograph.
"In this case, two separate officers got the same picture," Moses said. "I can't explain the differentiation on times. I have no idea." Again, ACS said "human error" accounted for the six-minute difference on the Lippmanns' citations.
The company gets a cut of each ticket issued, between $11 and $27 per ticket depending on the circumstance. But city and company officials say public safety is the motive behind the program.
Because three city departments - police, finance and transportation - are involved in the red-light camera program, it can be difficult to get answers when problems arise. Complicating the matter is that the private vendor is not accountable to citizens. The name of the vendor is not on the citation.
The contract is overseen by the Transportation Department, but spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said, "We just make sure the camera is functioning in a proper manner. We don't look at the pictures, and we don't collect the money, and we don't send out citations."
The Police Department looks at the pictures, the vendor sends out the citations and the Finance Department collects the money.
Mayor Martin O'Malley's spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory, noted that motorists can contest the tickets in court.
"This is the only case that has been brought to my attention, and there is a process for reviewing these," Guillory said yesterday. "This is not the final word on this particular incident, and based on the information there appears to be some kind of problem."
The city has put out a request for bids, due Aug. 27, to set up more red-light cameras. Officials have said they may add 60 cameras to city streets. The Lippmanns had driven to Baltimore from Pocono Pines, Pa., to attend an Orioles game. They invited their children, who live in Norfolk, Va., to join them at the game. They ate dinner at Phillips Restaurant and stayed at the Marriott Hotel.
"We came into the city to spend money," Barbara Lippmann said. " ... It cost us a few bucks, and now they want $75?"