District justice raises concerns about school bus camera citations, lawmaker calls for review

PITTSBURGH — 11 Investigates spoke with a state senator who supports the new school bus camera citation program and voted for it and a local district justice who hears some of the appeals.

District Justice Jim Motznik of Brookline said there’s been a lot of confusion about the new law allowing for those expensive school bus camera tickets, and he said says he’s not convinced it’s better than the old law.

>> Pittsburgh Public Schools redacts financial agreement with school bus camera company

He also told 11 Investigates that he has concerns about the involvement of a private company in the process.

Motznik: It seems to me like you know, the camera company, the company that put the camera on the buses is making out in the deal and it shouldn’t be a money maker.

Earle: That’s what it looks like?  It looks like a money grab?

Motznik: It does.

District Justice Motznik raising serious concerns about the new school bus camera law.

The Pennsylvania legislature changed it from a vehicle code violation with the possibility of points and license suspension to a civil complaint with a $300 fine to allow cameras mounted on buses to catch drivers who illegally pass them.

“A vehicle code violation should be a vehicle code violation.  It shouldn’t have been changed and they changed it into a civil complaint against the driver and it looks like the only one that benefits is the company that owns the cameras,” said Motznik.

The camera company is BusPatrol, and it now has contracts with multiple school districts in our area, including Pittsburgh Public, McKeesport, and East Allegheny.

BusPatrol and the schools maintain the program’s goal is to protect children, not raise money.

BusPatrol doesn’t charge the school district and they rely on revenue from the fines to pay for the installation and operation of the cameras.

A Buspatrol spokesperson said the company will likely not make any money for a year or so because of the costs of installing the cameras.

The spokesperson said eventually they will turn a profit and the school districts will also see a profit.

But Motznik said another issue is that oftentimes the school bus camera doesn’t tell the whole story.

“We find out that a lot of the times, the buses aren’t putting the arm out in a timely manner, people don’t always have the right opportunity to stop or to see it,” said Motznik.

Other drivers, Motznik said, were cited even though the bus driver waived them around.

BusPatrol said they just gather the evidence and it’s up to the police departments to decide whether it’s a violation.

Motznik said of the 20 cases he’s heard he’s only found a couple of people guilty.

11 Investigates also learned that drivers who want to fight the $300 fine must pay a $110 filing fee.

Drivers who lose are then out more than $400.

Drivers who win are supposed to get the filing fee back.

But some have told 11 Investigates they were never told that, and haven’t seen any refunds.

One driver told 11 Investigates she won her case and the district judge told her to call BusPatrol.

She hasn’t seen any money yet.

“I didn’t know there was some pushback on this. First I’ve heard of this,” said State Sen. Jim Brewster (D) of McKeesport.

Sen. Brewster supports the new law and he voted for the school bus camera legislation.

He believes it’s an important component to keep students safe and warn drivers about the dangers of illegally passing a stopped school bus.

While the school districts receive $250 of every fine, some of that goes to the camera company for installation and operation.

It’s unclear how much money the district gets and how much BusPatrol takes in from every citation.

Earle learned that $25 goes to the police who prosecute the citation, and $25 goes to a state fund to promote school bus safety.

No tax dollars are used for the program. It’s entirely funded by the citations.

Eventually, both Buspatrol and the school districts will see a profit, but it’s unclear how long that will take.

And Brewster said he wants to make sure it’s all done on the up and up.

“We need to make sure it’s not a money grab. I think the intent is honorable, the implementation is a different story,” said Brewster.

BusPatrol told 11 Investigates that they are in the process of addressing some of the issues and problems.

They said they will soon implement a brand new process where a PennDot representative will hear all of the initial appeals, instead of a district justice.

If a driver isn’t satisfied with the PennDot hearing officer’s decision, the driver has the option of appealing that verdict to the district judge.

The driver would then have to pay the $110 filing fee which would be refundable if the judge rules in favor of the driver.

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