Two tickets, several questions
WTOP's Ari Ashe reports.
MORNINGSIDE, Md. - A WTOP Ticketbuster investigation has uncovered serious questions about the accuracy of a speed camera on Suitland Road in Morningside, Md.
The revelation comes from two videos shot by drivers inside their cars. Steven Johnson, of Upper Marlboro, and Mike Weathersby, of Morningside, shared the videos exclusively with WTOP. Both had been suspicious about the cameras and wanted to record evidence.
Weathersby shot his video on Aug. 14 while driving past the 6800 Suitland Road South camera at 7:18 p.m.
"You see the camera in the video, you'll see my clock on the dashboard, you'll see my speedometer and you'll plainly see it's at 30 miles per hour. You'll also hear WTOP on in the background. And I got the ticket that said 44 miles per hour," says Weathersby. "But the video shows me going 30 miles per hour. How can you dispute it? It's video. It isn't edited; it just shows me going past the camera and it shows my speed on the speedometer."
Watch Mike Weathersby's video below:
WTOP authenticated the Weathersby video in two ways: First, the WTOP commercials in the background correspond to the date and time listed on the Morningside citation. Second, a time-stamp in the video file properties, which cannot be altered or changed, matches the citation.
"Let me be clear: I don't have a problem with speed cameras," Weathersby says. "I don't need to drive fast. As long as it's working properly, they're OK; they're slowing people down. But when you get a ticket saying you're speeding and you have proof that you are not, then I have a problem with it. Something is rotten with this camera."
Steven Johnson recorded his video on May 17 while driving past the same camera. His video also shows him driving 30 mph at 8:17 a.m. in his BMW 545i. Johnson received a ticket in the mail the next week. Morningside police alleged Johnson was traveling at 45 mph, in contrast to his video. When he realized he had a video, he says he called it an "aha moment."
Watch Steve Johnson's video below:
"There's no way that any competent and reasonable judge would allow this citation to carry any weight in a court of law. I've got excellent proof that the calibration on these cameras is false," says Johnson. "This video that I have taken is far more representative of my actual speed and the cameras on the street were very inaccurate. I decided to fight that in a court of law."
Johnson's ticket was dismissed in court in July, where he met with and coached Weathersby to shoot his own video. Johnson says there were a couple other videos that corresponded to Morningside tickets and those too were thrown out in court.
"I think any reasonable person would come to the same conclusion [looking at these videos] that the accuracy of the cameras is off. I think there's a strong possibility that personal videos taken by motorists will be upheld in court," says Johnson.
AAA Mid-Atlantic's John Townsend watched the videos and examined the tickets with WTOP Radio in our investigation and says he's horrified at what he's seen.
"This stinks to high heaven," Townsend says. "They have been confronted with the evidence that their system is illegally issuing tickets and they should cease and desist. If this system is so flawed and you don't do anything of that, then that bespeaks of corruption."
"I love the speed cameras and the great opportunities their revenue provide to do things for the community," Morningside Town Councilwoman Regina Foster said in April 2012 of the cameras, according to the Gazette.
Foster resigned from her seat in 2011 after a Maryland State Police investigation found she inappropriately voided red-light camera tickets for herself and others before getting re-elected in 2012. She denied the charges.
Todd Pounds, Morningside's town attorney, declined to be interviewed for this story, although he did speak to WTOP on the phone and email. He tells WTOP that the cameras are accurate and comply with Maryland law, but wouldn't comment on the videos themselves. WTOP asked Pounds to produce annual calibration and daily self- test records for the Suitland Road camera to substantiate his claims, but he refused to do so.
Morningside is an incorporated town within Prince George's County with about 2,000 residents and covering only about a half a square mile.
This summer, Ron Ely, of the Maryland Drivers Alliance, filed a public records request for the same documents, but Morningside denied his request. Ely has sued the town and Pounds to turn over the records.
Where do we go from here?
Townsend says Morningside needs to step up and run an open and transparent test of the speed camera.
"It behooves Morningside to run a calibrated car to see if the system works," he says. "The fact that they won't do that tells me that they're satisfied with the status quo because it brings big bucks for the town."
Montgomery County, Prince George's County and cities such as Laurel, Hagerstown and others run calibrated police cruisers passed their speed cameras to test their accuracy. Laurel, Hagerstown and Morningside all use Maryland-based speed camera vendor Brekford Corporation.
Townsend and Ely both suggest to WTOP that any driver with a question should challenge a ticket in court.
"I would also suggest drivers find an alternate route and avoid Morningside. That's the way you do it. Avoid the municipal town and find another way to work," Townsend says.
Johnson and Weathersby suggest any drivers going past the speed camera on Suitland Road videotape themselves with the speedometer and some timestamp like WTOP Radio in the background. Should you get a ticket, the video could help you in court.
Some experts told WTOP that the knock against these videos as evidence was that these drivers didn't calibrate their speedometers. But can a speedometer that isn't calibrated display 30 mph when you're really traveling at 45 mph? One expert from East-West Lincoln in New Carrollton says it's virtually impossible.
"Speedometers these days are all electronic. The anti-lock braking systems talk to the speedometer and if the two disagree, then a warning light would likely pop up," says the expert, who asked that we not use his name. "Unless you physically altered the vehicle in several ways, or you were an electronics expert and could tap into the readings, it's virtually impossible for a speedometer to be that far off."
The expert tells WTOP that at worst the speedometer could be off about 5 to 10 percent, although that's less likely as cars become computerized.
Red Tape in Morningside
Unlike Steven Johnson, whose ticket was dismissed, Mike Weathersby ran into red tape when trying to fight his Aug. 14 citation. He was in District Court in Hyattsville on Sept. 11 on another speed-camera ticket and used the Aug. 14 video to convince the judge to toss the ticket. However, the judge refused to take up the August ticket and told Weathersby to file for another court date.
Morningside received his request on Sept. 19, one day before the official payment due date, but told Weathersby he had forfeited his right to a hearing.
"The citation issued included instruction that a request for a court date must be received 5 days prior to the payment due date. We allow for the postmarked due date when considering if a request has been made within the allowed time. Your request was not received within this time period," the letter says.
Morningside was invoking a guideline the District Court of Maryland put on the back of all speed-camera citations, but one that multiple speed-camera officials in the state were unaware of and do not enforce.
After WTOP asked about the legal basis for the decision, Pounds told WTOP that the town would not object to a hearing. On Saturday, WTOP learned that Brekford scheduled a court date for Weathersby, allowing him to present his video before a judge.
If you think you're the victim of a bogus speed camera, red-light camera or parking ticket in D.C., Maryland or Virginia, WTOP may be able to help you cut the red tape. Email us your case - along with documentation - to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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