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Speeder Nabbed Twice--By Camera And Cop

Phil Lepanto was doing a good deed, driving up to Montgomery County on a Sunday morning to help a friend pick up a dresser for a newborn's bedroom. He went too heavy on the gas and got pulled over by a county police officer for doing 46 mph in a 30 mph zone on Connecticut Avenue.

A few days later, Lepanto received another ticket in the mail, this one citing him for a speeding violation committed a couple of blocks away and immediately before the other one. Again, the allegation was that he was going 45 in a 30 zone. But this time, it was one of the county's 70-plus speed cameras that caught him--for the very same act that the cop had stopped him for.

Lepanto knew he'd done wrong, but to be ticketed twice in a matter of a few feet for the very same violation struck him as wrong and unconstitutional--double jeopardy and all that.

So he wrote to both the county and the company that manages Montgomery's speed cameras, arguing that "While I admit that I was indeed traveling over the speed limit in this area, I do not think it is reasonable that I should be issued two citations for what would be essentially the same act."

Lepanto proposed that he pay the $40 fine levied for the speed camera violation since that was the infraction that happened first.

But rather than receive any response to his letters, Lepanto--a Mount Pleasant resident who had won five "good points" from the D.C. government for going five years without an infraction--next heard from the D.C. motor vehicles department, which told him it was suspending his license because he had failed either to pay his Montgomery County ticket or to show up to his scheduled court hearing.

But Lepanto never knew about any court hearing. When he went up to Rockville to figure out what had happened, he figured out that that was because the police officer who gave him the ticket had entered his city of residence as "NW," perhaps on the theory that the District's address quadrants are separate cities. The "NW" got translated into "city unknown" in court documents, so the notice of court hearing never reached Lepanto.

Lepanto had to post an $80 bond in Rockville and then take that paperwork to Washington (ah, right, that's the city's name) to forestall the suspension of his license, and then he had to go to court in Silver Spring last week to make his case against the camera ticket. (Still to come: A court date in Rockville for trial on the ticket from the officer.)

In Silver Spring, District Court Judge James Sarsfield told Lepanto that the only defense against a speed camera ticket is that your car was stolen and someone unknown to you was driving it. But Lepanto presented his two tickets, showed that the locations and times were proximate and asked to be allowed to pay the camera ticket, which carries a much lower fine than the citation handed out by the cop.

The courtroom burst into laughter at Lepanto's bargain-hunting, but the judge said the law gives precedence to the officer's ticket. He dismissed the speed camera ticket.

But Lepanto is still on the hook for the officer's ticket, which could set him back $125 and two points.

The judge didn't rule on the fairness of being ticketed twice, but Montgomery County Police spokesman Officer Oliver Janney says "There's nothing that says we can't set up laser within proximity of a speed camera." When he's on patrol, Janney says, he sometimes sets up a speed trap within a few blocks of a speed camera, but he would never do it on the same block. "That's kind of double jeopardy," he says.

Janney says he's seen judges let off motorists who were caught by both human and electronic means.

But he says Lepanto's ordeal was "on him. Even if you get hit twice, the onus is on you to go to court and say, 'Hey, I got stopped twice on this.'"

Now, Lepanto's waiting for his fourth journey into the bowels of the bureaucracy. I'm all for speed cameras, but a big part of their appeal is the promise that they would free up officers to spend time on more complicated and important matters. Here's how the county's own web site puts that promise: The camera program "will provide consistent speed enforcement that will allow police officers to devote their time to other law enforcement duties."

Sure, put up the cameras, but don't then turn around and station traffic cops anywhere near those cameras. Getting blitzed is bad enough; piling on is never good sportsmanship.

By Marc Fisher |  November 17, 2008; 8:19 AM ET
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Are the police accountable for anything? This poor guy gets sacked with an extra fee because the MoCo's finest thought NW was a city?

The pathetic thing to me is that the police hide behind platitudes about road safety when we all know that the biggest factor in ticket-writing is revenue.

Posted by: Cossackathon | November 17, 2008 10:08 AM

A couple things,

All of the cameras locations are posted on the MoCo web site. Also, all camera zones have the speed limit clearly posted with signs indicating that the area is camera enforced. Even if you are from out of town, you cannot drive into a camera zone without knowing unless you are not paying attention. Even then, you have an 11mph buffer above the limit before the camera activates. If you are ignorant to these points and get caught, it's your own fault.

Second, posting a cop near a camera enforced zone is actually a pretty good idea. Frequently you will see drivers speed towards the camera, slow down suddenly as they pass the camera then speed off afterward. Posting a cop nearby would counteract these offenders, who are putting themselves and others at risk when they slam on their brakes to slow down (typically to slower than required) to avoid a camera.

Posted by: thornwalker1 | November 17, 2008 10:24 AM

A little over a year ago I got a letter from the Rockville City PD which enclosed a photo from one of those traffic cameras of a car going through a red light. The personalized tag on the car was the same as mine but the car was a different color (same make, however). This puzzled me greatly as I haven't driven in Rockville in over 20 years. I contacted the Rockville PD and inquired about this. I told the officer, who turned out to be very sympathetic to my story, that wasn't my car. I ended up sending him photos of my car and both tags. Turns out the Maryland MVA had issued the same personalized tag to another driver 16 years after I had mine issued. I ended up taking a day from work and going in person to the MVA, armed with photos, to explain the problem to them. The clerk at the MVA claimed they would contact the other driver and withdraw those tags, as I had gotten mine first. I'm hoping those other tags were retrieved and destroyed. My driving record is clean....honest.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | November 17, 2008 11:19 AM

Yeah, but the guy shouldn't have expected to get out of a ticket just because he wrote a letter to the county and didn't get a response. The court hearing date should have been listed on the ticket the police office gave him - if you don't pay and don't show up at court, you run the risk of losing your license.

Posted by: jbird3 | November 17, 2008 11:26 AM

That'll teach him about doing good deeds. If he'd have been selfish and stayed home in bed none of this would have happened.

Posted by: ronjaboy | November 17, 2008 12:51 PM

That is so cool!!! If I get nailed in MoCo for speeding by a cop I can blast around town all day and use this excuse to get away with any camera tickets, right?

Isn't that what you are asking for? Or is there a distance limit you are proposing? One block, ten blocks, ten miles, how far until the police are allowed to enforce the law at different locations will be acceptable to Marc?

Posted by: SoMD1 | November 17, 2008 12:55 PM

Didn't Dr. Gridlock cover this a couple months ago?

Posted by: ArlingtonGay | November 17, 2008 6:34 PM

It is common knowledge that Dr. Gridlock plagiarized his dissertation, so I am not surprised that he stole this story from Marc Fisher before Marc had a chance to write about it.

Also, what is this about "good points" that you can get from DC? What are those?

Posted by: TheCounter | November 17, 2008 7:21 PM

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