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Questions remain in school bus camera proposal

Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore envisions a local law allowing video footage to be used for criminal cases

December 16, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

As Washington County considers whether to use cameras to catch motorists who illegally pass stopped school buses, some tricky questions still remain.

Such as, if a camera documents a criminal act unrelated to the driving infraction, could law-enforcement officials use that footage as part of an investigation?

Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said he thinks they could. He envisions a local law allowing video footage to be used for criminal cases, but not civil cases.

He noted, however, that it's unlikely that a camera trained on a limited area near a school bus would catch anything beyond a traffic violation.

These and other details still need to be worked out in the coming months if local officials proceed with plans to install cameras on buses, aimed at passing traffic.

Under state law, vehicles must stop for flashing red lights on a school bus flash, giving passengers room and time to get on or off the bus.

In Maryland, cameras are now allowed in counties that want them, because of enabling legislation passed in Annapolis earlier this year.

Mullendore said Thursday that he would start the program in the county on a trial basis, probably using about 20 buses on routes where bus drivers have seen the most violations.

He has suggested that for the first 60 days violators get a warning instead of a citation.

The pilot program would allow equipment from different vendors to be tested before the county chooses one, he said.

Mullendore and the school board also are hesitant to place too many cameras on buses to start because of how the new law is worded.

Board member Donna Brightman said the law seems to apply only to buses that the county owns and not the buses it uses through contracts.

Mullendore said he hopes to have the law amended in the next state legislative session to make it clear that contractors' buses are included.

Washington County Public Schools has 160 buses and contracts 70 more, according to Washington County Public Schools spokesman Richard Wright.

State Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Carroll/Frederick, sponsored the bill allowing cameras on school buses.

Among the lawmakers who represent Washington County, Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, and Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, voted no. The other six delegates and senators in the delegation voted yes.

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Shank wrote in an email that he offered an amendment that would limit use of the cameras to capturing violations of illegally passing a school bus. When the amendment was defeated, he voted against the bill, he wrote.

The law allows a maximum fine of $250; Mullendore said he will recommend the maximum.

In exchange for free use of the cameras, a vendor would get a share of the fine money.

The current fine for illegally passing a stopped school bus is $570, Mullendore said.

Brinkley said Wednesday that he hadn't heard the concern about contract buses vs. school-owned buses, but he already expects that other questions will lead to amendments to the law next year.

He said his bill wasn't written to permit using bus-camera footage to be used in criminal investigations.

Mullendore has asked the county attorney's office to draft an ordinance.

But County Attorney John M. Martirano said he is waiting until Mullendore can present the proposal to the Washington County Board of Commissioners, probably next month.

If the commissioners and school board members agree to proceed, the county would hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance.

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