Anyone who has been to traffic court knows the chances of beating a traffic-camera citation are slim to none. But those of us who appeared before Prince George’s District Court Judge Mark T. O’Brien a couple of weeks ago caught a rare break.
After noting that 90 percent of the cases that day involved right-turn-on-red citations, O’Brien announced to a nearly packed courtroom that he would reduce the $75 fines to $22.50 in court costs.
“The purpose of red-light cameras is to keep people from running through red lights, for obvious reasons,” O’Brien said. “But using them for right turns on red, I’m not so sure.”
In my Fort Washington neighborhood, there was little doubt about the purpose. At a three-way intersection with unobstructed views, residents had been making right turns on red for years — many of them slowing to a crawl, but not necessarily coming to a dead stop as the law requires. Even cops rolled through the turn without stopping.
Then, without warning, traffic citations began showing up in the mail — sometimes two or three within a few days.
“Between the drivers in my family and driving for my business, I got $800 in citations,” said Mike Hill, a neighbor who works as a security analyst and management consultant. “I remember when the [Maryland General Assembly] was debating the right-turn-on-red law, and some were concerned that it would be abused and used just to make money. And that’s exactly what has happened.”
Months earlier, county leaders had signed a $1 million “community benefits agreement” with the nearby MGM National Harbor casino. Residents were told that “local impact grants” would be used to help compensate for the inconveniences endured while the casino was being built. Some road improvements were made in the area, but our tax dollars had been used for that.
Now, all of community benefits money has been allocated. And what did the community around the casino get? A red-light camera.
I received two citations, which included “failure to pay” warnings and a not-so-veiled attempt to discourage me from challenging the citation in court. If I chose to appear in court, it read, “the maximum amount you can be charged is $100 plus court costs.”
In other words, I could take off from work, make a 45-mile round-trip drive to a courthouse in Hyattsville — and end up paying a $122.50 fine. Or, I could just fork over the $75.
Little wonder that most people just pay the fine and be done with it. But pay or fight it, getting scammed by your government can have a corrosive effect. That lack of trust in institutions that everybody talks about? This is how it starts — with seemingly small deceits: elected officials claiming that a right-turn-on-red camera was set up for your safety when everybody knows it’s a roadside cash cow.
Judges behaving like robotic appendages to an automated enforcement system. Hearing examiners for the District are employed by the Department of Motor Vehicles. How impartial can they be?
As John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, told me, “The right-turn-on-red cameras are the biggest scandal in automated traffic enforcement.”
Brian Bregman, a lawyer based in Laurel who handles lots of traffic cases, called right-turn-on-red light cameras “a sneaky little branch off” from a red-light camera system aimed at motorists who run straight through red lights. With the resulting reduction in those violations, fines decreased and many jurisdictions needed some way to make up for the losses. Recalibrating cameras for right-turn-on-red infractions was one of those ways.
I contested both citations.
Judge O’Brien began with a brief overview of the right-turn-on-red law, noting that “the statue was enacted to stop all accidents resulting from running a red light.” Then, while scanning the multitude gathered before him, he added, “But I don’t think this is what the lawmakers intended.”
My second hearing was before Judge Ann Wagner Stewart. Emboldened by the outcome in Judge O’Brien’s court, I approached the bench and delivered an impassioned lament. “Your honor, this is so unfair. It’s incomprehensible.” She appeared unimpressed but still reduced the fine by $15.
Of course, it would have been better if all the right-turn-on-red cases had been tossed out and everyone who paid the fines got a refund, the law repealed and the scam ended.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.