Maryland town officials seek to have $5 million lawsuit dismissed

November 12, 2012

Riverdale Park officials are hoping a judge will throw out a $5 million class-action lawsuit related to speed camera ticket procedures.

The August lawsuit was filed in Prince George’s County Circuit Court by an attorney representing three Maryland drivers who the suit claims were issued $40 tickets by speed cameras operating with technology that did not comply with state law. One of the drivers was given a ticket that contained a forged signature containing the name of Riverdale Park Police Cpl. Clay Alford, the lawsuit contends.

In a motion filed Oct. 31 to dismiss an amended version of the lawsuit, the town’s lawyers dispute that the plaintiffs were issued tickets that contained forged signatures, and say the speed cameras in the town were operating in full compliance with the law and underwent annual calibration checks with an independent laboratory to ensure that they were operating properly.

E-mails from May 19, 2010, attached to the original complaint allegedly show Alford and two civilian workers in the police department planning how to split up the work of signing off 2,900 speed camera citations issued by the town. Timothy Leahy, who is representing the three Maryland residents, said Alford was the only officer authorized to sign the citations, and the civilian workers used his log-in information to the town’s citation system to sign off on the tickets.

In addition, an amended complaint filed by Leahy said between Feb. 17, 2011, and April 3, 2011, Alford was on leave from the town’s police department. Roy I. Chamberlin, a driver listed as a plaintiff in the suit, was issued a speed camera citation Feb. 17, which is signed by Alford, the complaint says.

Leahy said this indicates that someone other than Alford signed Chamberlin’s ticket using his log-in information.

Mayor Vernon Archer said he could not comment on the case because it is active litigation. Kevin Karpinski, an attorney representing the town, said he could not comment on the facts of the case.

Leahy said based on witness testimony by Alford, he estimates that about two-thirds of the speeding tickets that were issued to residents contained signatures that were forged by civilians workers in the city’s police department. Maryland’s 2006 speed camera law requires each ticket be signed by a law enforcement officer.

The law also requires that there be a fixed object in photographs from speed cameras that allow an observer to clearly judge how fast a driver was going.

Leahy said the town’s speed cameras did not take pictures containing a fixed object. The town’s contractor that installed the speed cameras, Optotraffic LLC, a division of Sigma Space Corp. based in Greenbelt, are listed as defendants in the lawsuit along with the town because both knew there were forged signatures on some tickets and that the speed camera equipment in the town did not follow Maryland law, Leahy said.

“People should be saddened at their elected representatives and police that no one has been brought to account for this,” Leahy said.

Tim Ayers, spokesman for Optotraffic, said the company’s cameras have a built-in laser system called LIDAR that creates a fixed point for the camera to judge whether a driver is speeding. The camera shoots a laser beam that picks up a driver’s vehicle as it passes the camera. A second laser catches the vehicle at another point and the camera makes a determination if the driver was speeding based on the time it took to pass the second laser beam. If the driver is 12 mph over the speed limit, the camera takes photos of the vehicle, he said.

“[Leahy] has come up with another unique theory and the courts will decide if that has any value or not,” Ayers said.

The fate of the plaintiff’s lawsuit might rest on the question of whether residents have the right to sue the town for violations of Maryland’s speed camera law, Leahy said.

In their motion, the town’s lawyers cite a recent court case in Montgomery County where the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the state’s speed camera law does not allow for residents to sue a jurisdiction in a class-action lawsuit for violations of the law, partly because individuals can fight the tickets in a District Court.

Leahy said since the case involves alleged fraud, residents should be able to file a class-action lawsuit against the town.

“I think this is different because, let’s just assume that there was no speed camera statue,” he said. “This was a just speeding ticket. If someone forged an officer’s name on it and made you pay, I think that would be actionable based on common law fraud. I don’t think the case against Riverdale Park requires a new cause of action in the speeding camera law.”

The $5 million figure the plaintiffs are asking for is an estimate based on 2011 budget documents that show that the town made $1.8 million in revenue that year on the speed camera tickets, and assuming that similar figurers were made in other years since January 2010, when the speeding cameras were installed, Leahy said.

A judge could rule on whether the case should go forward at any time, Leahy said, and a trial date will be set after that.

tsandoval@gazette.net

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