Oklahoma City? Pawtucket speed-camera tickets throw recipients for a loop
PAWTUCKET — Bruce Trombley sifted through his mail one day last fall to find a business-size envelope with a Massachusetts return address and Oklahoma City postmark.
“I looked at the envelope, thought it was junk mail and threw it in the back seat of my truck,” said Trombley, who lives in Warren. That’s because the return address on the envelope said “Citations Processing Center” and listed a post office box in Beverly, a city 90 miles away on the north shore of Boston that he’s never visited.
“A couple of weeks later I went to clean out the truck and decided to open it,” Trombley said, only to find it was a $50 ticket from the City of Pawtucket for speeding near Potter Burns Elementary School on Newport Avenue. “Why am I being served a civil complaint with something that looks like junk mail? What happens if I threw that out?” he asked.
More:Ticket-demic: Speed camera racks up $100K in fines near COVID testing site
Trombley was one of more than a dozen people who contacted The Hummel Report after an investigation in January, published in the Providence Journal, about the city’s school-zone speed-camera program. One camera near a COVID testing site at McCoy Stadium generated 7,500 tickets since mid-September, yielding $376,000 in fines.
That camera, across from Jenks Middle School on Division Street, is one of 13 cameras at 10 schools across the city. Six locations have been running since September, and four were activated in February when the School Department transitioned its students back to classrooms.
A close-up of the return address on the envelope that contained the Pawtucket speed-camera citation for Bruce Trombley of Warren.
The Hummel Report brought Trombley’s complaint about the envelope labeling to Mayor Donald Grebien, who responded by ordering the company that processes the violations to indicate the envelope is coming from the City of Pawtucket, effective immediately.
“When you’re talking about customer service, it makes perfect sense,” Grebien said this week. “Sometimes this is where government needs to hear from its constituency. It’s automatically coming from the company. It’s an outside company monitoring all of this, coming from their address. That’s got to change.”
Trombley said the system is also weighted toward having potential violators pay the $50. He challenged the violation successfully at Pawtucket Municipal Court — but wound up having to pay $38.50 in mandated court costs.
“In order for it be heard before a judge, I have to pay for that honor?” Trombley said, suggesting that the city could use some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars it has generated from the cameras to station police cars near schools to slow traffic. “Show me $10 you’ve spent on School Department safety,” he added.
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That’s not the only complaint about the process. Mike Sullivan of Providence was clocked speeding on the way to getting a COVID test at McCoy Stadium in late November. It is a 20-mph zone. The city tickets anyone going 31 mph or over.
Sullivan was surprised when he received a citation in the mail several weeks later. “My first thought was I didn’t even recognize the area. I didn’t know the street, or Jenks school. I put it together and realize it must have been when I went to get my COVID test.”
Sullivan then researched the state law governing cameras and found that four signs must be posted at least 100 feet from the zone on the approach to the camera. He said he only saw two on Division Street. It turns out there is another on Columbus Avenue, around the corner in front of McCoy Stadium — but that one alerts motorists to a speed camera in front on Agnes Little Elementary, around the corner from Jenks. There is another sign several hundred yards away on Division Street, across an intersection. But there were not four on any one approach.
A close-up of the Oklahoma City postmark on the envelope that contained the Pawtucket speed camera citation for Bruce Trombley of Warren.
“I’m all in favor of catching people speeding in school zones and trying to deter that, but I also strongly believe if you’re going to issue people monetary violations you need to be following the rules yourself,” Sullivan said. “The body that’s issuing these violations needs to be in compliance.”
City Solicitor Frank Milos, responding to an Access to Public Records Request, wrote: “According to the Police Department, the City has been and continues to be in full compliance with the statutory signage for each speed camera located in the City. Further, all required signs are checked weekly for compliance.”
But the Hummel Report found otherwise. While the majority of school zones has the required signage, Curvin McCabe Elementary on Cottage Street has only three signs; Samuel Slater Middle School on Mineral Spring Avenue has two signs; several schools have four signs, but some are hundreds of yards away — and across intersections — from the cameras.
Sullivan agreed with Trombley that the system gives potential violators no incentive to appeal the ticket in court. “I ended up paying mine and I assume a lot of other people did, because it’s easier than going in for a hearing,” he said. “I just started a new job at the beginning of January. I don’t want to tell them: ‘Oh I’ve got to go to court.’ That doesn’t look good. My job is driving a truck and I’m going to tell my new employer I’m going to fight a speeding ticket in a school zone?”
But he also says the speed cameras may hurt those who can least afford to pay for a violation.
“I think it’s a bad look that in an economically depressed area, people during a pandemic are going to get tested to help in the prevention of the spread of COVID,” he said. “And these people have probably taken a hit on their income to begin with and some of them have probably lost all of their incomes because of this. They’re going to get tested and they get whacked with a $50 fine in a zone that’s not marked according to what the law states.”
The good news for those who may have thrown out tickets thinking they are junk mail: the fine carries no additional monetary fees if you don’t pay on time, as is the case with most moving violations. The city also has no authority to suspend a registration if the motorist does not respond. The company will continue to send out reminders, and eventually turn it over to a collections agency.
The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.