Governor drops curtain on night sight experiment

Troopers' use of goggles to spot seat belt violators criticized as intrusive

June 07, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

As determined as he is to make sure Marylanders wear seat belts, the thought of state troopers peering into cars on Rockville Pike with the same technology Special Forces use on night raids in Baghdad was a bit too much for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Ehrlich ordered the state police yesterday never to repeat its experiment using night-vision goggles to catch violators of the state's seat belt law.

"The governor is committed to making sure Maryland's safety belt laws are enforced; however, he does not feel that this is an appropriate use of this type of technology," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. "The governor feels the police, not technology, should enforce our safety belt laws."

Last month, Ehrlich pointed to similar concerns in vetoing a bill that would have allowed Montgomery County to use cameras to automate enforcement of speed limits on certain streets. He said in his veto message that he objects to using cameras to monitor citizens "in the absence of extraordinary circumstances."

The night-vision operation stemmed from an annual national campaign to encourage seat belt use during the summer driving season. The commander of the state police Rockville barracks borrowed night-vision goggles from the military in an experiment last week to see if the technology could help troopers catch more violators at night, said police spokesman Greg Shipley.

In announcing Maryland's participation in the "Click It or Ticket" campaign, state police said in a news release that 70 percent of motorists killed in nighttime crashes weren't wearing seat belts. Therefore, the release said, the state police would put a heavier emphasis on nighttime enforcement.

In Rockville, the barracks commander, Lt. Dan Cornwell, came up with the idea of using night-vision goggles - borrowed from the military - for a trial enforcement run from 9 p.m. to midnight Wednesday on Rockville Pike, Shipley said. In that time, troopers issued 111 citations for seat belt violations, but when news of the operation spread, it became the subject of criticism on talk radio.

Cornwell referred a request for comment to Shipley.

Shipley said Hutchins knew about the plan in advance, but he said that, to his knowledge, the governor's office did not.

"The superintendent issues a general directive that he wants his commanders to be always looking for effective ways of enforcement, and they develop and implement plans that they believe are effective for the areas in which they work," Shipley said. "This was one of those instances, and it was just a test to see how it would work and if it would work."

"It was just one time and won't be used again," he added.

DeLeaver said Ehrlich acted immediately after hearing about the operation.

"When he heard about it, he didn't like it, and he put an end to it," she said.

Maryland's seat belt law initially allowed only for what is known as "secondary enforcement," meaning an officer could issue a ticket for the offense only if a motorist was pulled over for another violation, such as speeding.

But in 1997, the legislature changed the law to allow police to pull over motorists for a seat belt violation alone. Maryland is one of 20 states with a primary enforcement law, said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Transportation Safety Association, which sponsors the "Click It or Ticket" campaign.

Tyson said he had heard that Pennsylvania State Police considered using night-vision scopes for seat belt enforcement, but he said he knows of no other states that used them.

Initial reports of the Rockville enforcement operation on Washington television stations sparked a backlash, largely on talk radio and conservative or civil libertarian Web sites, such as www.freerepublic.com and www.freedomisslavery.info.

Critics, including WBAL-AM's Chip Franklin, who dedicated more than three hours of his show to the topic, called it a Big Brother tactic to enforce a law they see as intrusive in the first place.

"Nobody will stand up and say the obvious," Franklin said in an interview yesterday afternoon. "It's obviously about money. If it were about saving lives, they would issue warnings, not tickets."

Franklin, host of the Chip Franklin Show, said he received many calls on the topic, most of them against night-vision scope use.

"We had probably two-thirds of the callers saying they think that it was kind of spooky yet goofy at the same time, and a third saying you've got to do whatever you can to save lives," Franklin said.

Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat and a leading traffic safety advocates in the legislature, said the night-vision goggles are a distraction from the important issue, which is making sure motorists wear seat belts.

"This should not be a call to retreat on a life-saving law that could be saving a lot more lives if we more assertively enforced it," Bronrott said. "We can do that without night-vision goggles."

Although the state police will not use the technology, that doesn't mean local police won't. Lt. Eric Burnett, a Montgomery County police spokesman, said the department assisted the state police and has night-vision goggles of its own.

"We don't have any plans to use our night-vision goggles for that. ... But we're not going to say we never will," Burnett said.

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