Circuit judge rules Baltimore Co. speed camera contract is illegal

Ruling could help others challenge citations in court

March 05, 2013|By Luke Broadwater and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

A Circuit Court judge has ruled that Baltimore County's contract with its speed camera vendor is illegal, because it pays the company a cut of each citation issued — a ruling that could help others challenge their citations in court.

While Judge Susan Souder's ruling dismissed only a single speed camera ticket, the opinion is believed to be the first time a judge has ruled against the legality of the so-called "bounty system," one of the most controversial elements of the law.

The ruling could help other motorists fight speed camera tickets, even though it has no direct effect on other cases, said John A. Lynch Jr., a professor and associate dean at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

"It's not binding precedent," he said. But other judges might treat it as a "persuasive precedent," he said, adding, "Sometimes there is a herd mentality with judges. They hear this judge did it and … they might see this is a good thing to do."

In a Feb. 21 ruling that tossed out Stanley H. Katz's ticket, Souder wrote, "The fees paid to ACS Xerox on a per-citation basis violate" Maryland law.

On Tuesday, Katz, an Owings Mills lawyer, distributed copies of the ruling to a General Assembly committee considering a flurry of proposals concerning speed cameras statewide. Those proposals came after a Baltimore Sun investigation that found numerous examples of cameras issuing erroneous tickets and jurisdictions skirting the intent of state law.

"Money is being funneled through the District Court improperly," Katz said before testifying. "Where does that leave us? It's a legal mess. I'm asking for Baltimore County to shut down the program. It's illegal."

State Del. James Malone, chairman of the house's transportation committee, said he planned to speak with Souder to discuss the matter. Souder declined to comment Tuesday.

Baltimore County defended its program, saying the payments specified in the contract are legal.

"We believe that all of the testimony in this case made it very clear that the program in Baltimore County is operated by the Baltimore County Police Department," county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said. "That issue has never been in question. Beyond that we have no comment."

A spokesman for Xerox State & Local Solutions, formerly known as ACS, referred questions to Baltimore County.

Maryland law says that "if a contractor operates a speed camera system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor's fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid." But several jurisdictions, including Baltimore County and Baltimore City, pay their vendors a cut of each ticket, arguing that the jurisdiction, not the company, operates the cameras.

The pay-by-the-citation model sparked a long-running legal fight that began in 2008 when ticket recipients sued Montgomery County and several municipalities in the county. It ended in August with the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, ruling against the plaintiffs on the grounds that the legislature did not give anyone the right to sue.

But the court did not decide the crux of the case: whether and under what circumstances governments can pay contractors based on the number of tickets the cameras generate.

The defense in the Montgomery County case turned in part on the meaning of the word "operates." The governments argued that they operate the programs, while the contractor — Xerox — provides equipment and vehicles.

In Baltimore County, Xerox receives about $19 from every $40 ticket.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has said that state law bars speed camera contractors from being paid based on the number of citations issued or paid. And Sen. James N. Robey, a Howard County Democrat who sponsored the speed camera law, said the aim of the legislative provision was to guard against "abuse of the motoring public" by removing a profit motive for contractors to process questionable tickets.

Katz was cited March 9 for going 47 mph in a 30 mph zone on Old Court Road in Milford Mill. After unsuccessfully challenging the ticket in District Court, he took the rare step of appealing to Circuit Court. Last month Souder oversaw a trial that lasted several hours and included a number of witnesses.

Katz's law partner, James K. MacAlister, pointed out to the judge that an attachment to Baltimore County's contract with Xerox says the company, not the county, operates the cameras: "The contractor will operate 22 active speed cameras and 15 active red light cameras at all times."

"I submit to you this contract, the day it was signed, violates the bounty provision because in this contract the contractor is paid by citation," MacAlister said.

County lawyer Jordan V. Watts Jr. said the use of the term "operate" in the contract was "a poor choice of words" and emphasized that county police carry out daily steps needed for the cameras to issue citations.

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