Up to speed

Penalties for Md. motorists vary by county

Sun Special Report

February 03, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

In Maryland it doesn't pay just to watch your speed. You'd better watch where it is you're speeding.

In Baltimore and Baltimore County, fewer than 10 percent of speeding tickets charge the driver with exceeding the limit by less than 10 mph. More than half go to people charged with going 20, 30 or even 40 mph faster than allowed.

But in Montgomery County, police give 60 percent of speeding tickets to someone charged with going 1 to 9 mph over the limit. Only 20 percent of ticketed motorists are caught for exceeding the limit by more than 20 mph.

The stark contrast among jurisdictions was revealed in an analysis by The Sun of statewide District Court records from 2006. According to police and law enforcement experts, such extreme variations are less a reflection of driver behavior than of police practices in the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City.

In some jurisdictions, officers routinely give "on-the-street discounts" -- writing tickets for speeds far less than measured by their radar gun readings -- while other departments discourage the practice.

In Baltimore County, senior officers frown on discounts, according to police department spokesman Bill Toohey. "We would expect it not to be done widely or often," he said. "This agency is very big on going by the book."

Officers in Montgomery appear to be guided by a different book. Cpl. Jimmy Robinson, a county police spokesman, said the high percentage of tickets in the lowest speed range -- which carries the mildest penalty -- does not mean officers there are routinely ticketing drivers for petty violations.

"We are very proud of the caliber of the citizens that we serve in Montgomery County," Robinson said. "Is it really fair to jam this person with a 3-point citation and a multi-hundred-dollar fine?" County officers have the discretion to give a ticket or not, he said, and there's no law that says they have to write a ticket for the precise speed recorded on a radar gun.

The discrepancies from county to county raise questions about unequal treatment of speeders in different parts of the state. For instance, the records suggest that a driver going 76 mph in a 55 mph zone on the Baltimore Beltway in Towson faces a strong possibility of severe penalties -- including points that can drive up insurance rates. Meanwhile, a motorist going 76 mph in a 55 mph zone on the Capital Beltway in Bethesda has much better odds of getting a slap on the wrist.

Under Maryland law, speeding violations are punishable by varying amounts based on speed level. A ticket for exceeding the limit by 1 mph to 9 mph carries a penalty of $80 and a point. The penalties escalate in steps to $530 and 5 points for going 40 mph or more over the limit.

For any of these offenses, District Court judges have the discretion to convict the driver at a lesser speed than recorded on the ticket. But the data indicate that in some counties, motorists are getting their discounts before they reach the courtroom.

John Pawuk of Reisterstown, who was in Catonsville District Court last week after receiving a ticket for going 77 mph on the Beltway, received probation before judgment and a reduced fine. But he was still aggrieved at being treated as "a common criminal" by the officer who pulled him over.

"This county is money-hungry," Pawuk said after being shown the speeding statistics. "I just know in this county you can't get a break."

The Maryland State Police have been headed since early last year by the same man who led the Baltimore County police in 2006, Col. Terrence B. Sheridan. His spokesman, Greg Shipley, said Sheridan's philosophy is that while troopers have discretion to give a warning, the tickets that are issued shouldn't understate the speed.

"Once you get to the facts of the case, as a general rule it should be written at what it is and let any further disposition be done at the court," Shipley said.

It's not clear that policy was consistently in force in 2006 and earlier.

In Calvert County, where the State Police do much of the traffic law enforcement, 79 percent of the speeding tickets issued in 2006 charged infractions of less than 10 mph. Only 11 percent were for violations of 20 mph or more. Charles and St. Mary's counties, also in Southern Maryland, showed a similar pattern.

But in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore, also largely patrolled by State Police, the numbers were almost reversed. Only 4 percent of the tickets fell into the lowest class of speed violation in 2006, while 54 percent charged speeding of more than 20 mph over the limit.

Doug Ward, director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University, said ticketing practices can be deeply ingrained in the culture of a police department.

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