Thomas Soldan is an experienced litigator and criminal defense attorney in Loudoun County who handles a range of criminal cases, including DUI, felony cases, and criminal speeding charges. Mr. Soldan works out of Price Benowitz LLP’s Virginia offices in Leesburg and Warrenton.
The District of Columbia and neighboring Prince Georges and Montgomery counties in Maryland are among a growing number of jurisdictions, local and nationwide, using digital cameras to enforce speed limits. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), as of February 2016, 141 communities in the US have some level of speed camera law enforcement.
While advocates hail the benefits of improved highway safety, speed camera usage continues to be controversial. Civil liberty issues, potential conflicts of interest among contractors earning commissions, overall lack of program oversight, and the general belief jurisdictions are using them simply to generate revenue rather than protect citizens, are among the leading concerns.
Stoking the controversy is the fact that nearly as many state and local governments have enacted laws prohibiting camera usage or narrowly restricting how and where they can be used. Data from the Governors Highway Safety Association website shows that:
- 13 states have passed laws that prohibit speed cameras
- 28 states have no specific laws addressing speed cameras
- 2 states plus DC clearly allow speed cameras as outlined in legislation
- 7 states limit speed camera use by location or other conditions
The basic legal issues relate to due process and how speeding violations captured by a camera can be proven and/or citations delivered. Driver identification is a huge concern. Some jurisdictions, including D.C. and the nearby Maryland counties simply issue a ticket to the car’s registered owner regardless of who was driving. The registered owner is fully responsible for the ticket without any evidence he or she was the actual driver.
Camera critics also point out that when a police officer physically issues a ticket to a driver, the offender can question the officer about evidence both at the time of the incident and again in court. But this option is not available when tickets are automatically generated and mailed to a vehicle owner, and in reality, equipment failures and ambiguous results are fairly common.
A 2014 study issued by the D.C. Office of Inspector General found that tickets were frequently issued in the District even when vehicles could not be conclusively identified. The report went so far as to suggest the D.C. government was emphasizing ticket revenues over system accuracy and fairness as well as improved safety – a point hotly disputed by the Metropolitan Police Department and the D.C. City Council.
The good news is local and federal courts are keeping a close watch. Many motorists have successfully challenged camera citations on the basis of due process violations. In fact, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles reports that in FY 2013, judges dismissed more than 35 percent of the adjudicated photo-captured violations because of ambiguous evidence. And in Baltimore City in 2013, more than 6,000 tickets were voided due to lack of proof because a key equipment vendor stopped appearing in court to substantiate its evidence. This represented a major lack of oversight and control of the city’s speed camera program.
Virginia Attorney Thomas Soldan urges motorists and vehicle owners to understand their rights. “Luckily drivers here in Virginia do not have to deal with these issues, but in most traffic cases, courts will uphold speed camera tickets supported by clear cut evidence. Federal, state and local laws continue to be debated, and the definition of clear cut evidence continues to evolve, particularly in light of due process. In situations where the evidence is not clear, citizens should be able to assert their rights legitimately.”
Courts will continue to hear cases and make rulings. Drivers and vehicle owners should take note. Understand the issues, know your rights, and keep in mind a basic premise of our judicial system – innocent until proven guilty.
Borderstan contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author — our contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP — and do not necessarily reflect the views of Borderstan.