A sign in front of the Unqua Elementary School on...

A sign in front of the Unqua Elementary School on Unqua Road in Massapequa warns motorists of a speed traffic camera in use. The posted speed limit in front of the school is 20 mph. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

It's a question we hear often, and we don't have the answer.

But here's the take-away from a recent session of speed camera hearings at Nassau County's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency:

No one contesting a ticket at the session won.

The hearings have been held one day a week since the first week of the month and, in that time, only two tickets have been dismissed, according to the county. Those two were dismissed at hearings last week "in the interest of justice," according to John Marks, executive director of the agency. In each case a piece of documentation was not available.

To deal with the volume of tickets -- we've heard of hearings scheduled as far away as May and June -- the agency added an evening session and is doubling the number of days hearings are held in December to two a week. A recent surge in contested tickets -- 6,000 arrived in a two-week period -- contributed to the backlog, said David Rich, deputy executive director of the agency. Even so, he said, the requests account for less than 1 percent of speed camera tickets issued.

At the Nov. 12 afternoon session at the agency's location in Hempstead, people waited in line, tickets in hand, until the doors opened at 2. Rules are posted that forbid wearing shorts and using cellphones inside.

Next came another wait -- 40 cases were on the morning docket, 37 in the afternoon -- until each person had what Rich called a "preview" with an agency staff member who explained the information on the ticket, such as location, photos of the vehicle and recorded speed.

The one-on-one sessions are intended "to help them as well as us so they don't have to waste time further," Rich said, and afterward "almost 80 percent go straight to the cashier."

For those who don't -- on this afternoon, five people opted for a trial -- the next step is the hearing room. Their cases were called one at a time and, in a small hearing room, a prosecutor presented a list of evidence:

The ticket, referred to as a notice of liability. An affidavit from a county employee about the accuracy of the information on the ticket. Photos of the vehicle and its license plate. A lab report certifying that the camera had passed system tests before and after the vehicle's speed was measured. And a photo of the speed camera itself.

Drivers' arguments targeted the validity of the tickets: That cameras in some locations were not justified in the name of safety. That flashing yellow lights should have been installed. That signs on the approach were inadequate and confusing. That the county had provided insufficient notice that the speed cameras would be operating just as vacationers were returning after Labor Day.

And that they've been driving for decades in a manner they consider safe, with nary a speeding ticket.

The first to appear before Judge Joseph Calabrese was Steve Diamond of Lido Beach. He didn't dispute the 34-mph speed recorded on Sept. 4, the second day of school, in a 20-mph zone near the entrance to Lido Elementary School.

Diamond instead said the speed was "not unreasonable on a road where the speed limit is 40. It drops to 20 quickly." He offered photos of the approach to the school: First, an overhead sign signals a slowdown to 30 mph from 40. Next, "maybe 50 feet ahead," comes a 20-mph school speed-limit sign.

"It's just not adequate notice at all," he said, made worse now that darkness arrives before enforcement of the school speed limit ends at 6 p.m.: "When we know it will be dark at 4:30 today, and you have to look for the sign with no flashing lights, it really puts a burden" on drivers trying to pay heed to traffic conditions.

He also pointed out the school's location at the end of a long driveway, far from roadway traffic: "I just want to let the court know that this arrangement is not really adequate."

Calabrese said each of those issues is the province of the legislative and executive branches. "The person to call is your legislator," he told Diamond, adding that the court's "obligation is to follow the law" as it exists.

With that, he told Diamond he could pay the cashier in the lobby. In a few cases, he mentioned that the speed camera law has no provision for lowering the $50 fine or dismissing the $30 administrative fee.

Of the other four cases, two would be making return visits: One was rescheduled when the owner needed to leave early, another adjourned for a week. The other two presented their arguments: One said he and his wife received four tickets in the first two days of the school year, just after returning from vacation, and were unaware of the camera program. Another, cited on the first day of school for 31 mph in a 20-mph zone, said he drives for a living and cited a 20-year record of safety.

What each got, instead of victory, was a forum to speak his mind.

"I had my say, and I understand," Diamond said when Calabrese pronounced judgment. The ticket he contested was one of six his family had received.

Rise in tickets, and legal issues

Online protests of Nassau County's speed camera tickets have encouraged motorists to contest their tickets and, in so doing, clog the court system. One posting we saw last weekmonday, nov 17 included this: "When you appear in traffic court, the person responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the speed camera that took the photo of your vehicle also has to be present in traffic court." In other words, the right of the accused to face the accuser.

The county says that person's presence is not required and, instead, a document that certifies the camera underwent testing before and after the vehicle speed was measured is accepted as evidence.

That practice is permitted under "an exception to the 'Hearsay Rule,' " John Marks, executive director of the county's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, said in response to our inquiry. The exception allows "entry of a written document of the 'accuracy of the speed camera' into evidence as a 'business record'," Marks said.

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