Wednesday, April 16, 2014 4:33 AM
Published on: Thursday, December 05, 2013
By Holden Wilen
ROCKVILLE – A local activist successfully defended himself in Montgomery County Circuit Court last week against a speed camera citation after the judge ruled he was not operating the vehicle at the time of the violation.
Ron Ely, a Gaithersburg resident and leading member of the Maryland Drivers Alliance blog, received a speeding citation for his Toyota Prius from Montgomery County in June for a violation which occurred on May 18. However, Ely says he was not driving the car at the time of the violation.
In District Court, the judge ruled against Ely stating the defense would not be accepted unless the driver also appeared in court.
After the District Court ruling, Ely appealed to the Circuit Court, where he would get a new trial.
“In District Court the judges are pressured to get cases out of the door,” Ely said. “There is no real opportunity to make legal arguments.”
According to Article 21-809 of the Maryland State Code, the District Court may consider “evidence that the person named in the citation was not operating the vehicle at the time of the violation; and any other issues and evidence that the District Court deems pertinent” as a defense.
In order to establish one did not operate the vehicle, the law requires the defendant to provide a sworn letter mailed by certified mail, wherein the individual states he or she was not operating the vehicle at the time of the violation and includes any other corroborating evidence.
Ely also noted a change of the law which occurred in 2009. Before the change, defendants were required to provide the name and address of the individual who actually drove the vehicle. The change removed that requirement.
“The deletion of subparagraph ii was a deliberate change, not an accident,” Ely said. “It significantly altered the meaning of it. In my opinion someone in the legislature realized there was an issue with requiring a person to identify the driver. The fact that the statute was deliberately changed to remove any specific requirement to identify the driver makes it clearer than anything else that this is a 'defense' not just a 'transfer', and that this is not just a technicality but rather it is the actual intent of the statute to allow an affirmative defense.”
Before his trial in Circuit Court, Ely sent a notarized, sworn letter stating he was not the driver. During the trial, Ely provided copies of chat logs from his laptop to Judge John W. Debelius III as further evidence he was not driving the vehicle at the time of the violation. At that time, County Attorney Dave Stevenson agreed Ely was not the driver.
In the end, Debelius ruled in Ely’s favor and threw out the citation.
After the trial, Stevenson said he was not prepared to deal with Ely’s particular defense.
“We were not contesting he was not driving the vehicle,” Stevenson said. “I was not sufficiently prepared to deal with (Ely’s) particular argument in that particular case that day.”
Stevenson said he was not involved in the District Court case, so he was not prepared to deal with the nuances of Ely’s argument because Ely did not send in a notarized letter until the Circuit Court trial.
“I did not realize the law was not as clear as I guess it was about the need to notify the District Court you were not the driver,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson said the requirement to send in a notarized letter is more than a hoop for people to go through. Because Ely did not send a letter to the District Court, Stevenson said, the court was not able to let him know about Ely’s defense.
“The fact it is a completely new trial in Circuit Court does not mean that provision letter in the law that says you need to send a letter to the District Court does not apply,” Stevenson said. “…The whole idea of the notice requirement is to give the county the opportunity to at least check to see if they can check to issue a violation to someone else.”
Next time, Stevenson said he will be able to make a better argument to the judge.
Stevenson said the county went to trial instead of tossing out the citation because it attempts to defend all appeals it deems fair to defend. The trial had nothing to do with Ely’s role as an active blogger who speaks out against the speed camera program.
However, Ely said he could sense frustration on the county’s part after the judge’s decision, and he thinks the county is worried about people using innocence as a defense.
“It is similar to what Katniss Everdeen says in the Hunger Games—the county seems to think their system is so fragile a few not guilty people will bring the system down,” Ely said.