By William Patrick / September 12, 2016
Motorists from 65 Florida cities and counties want their money back after paying red light camera tickets that a state appeals court deemed illegal two years ago.
Last week, a federal appeals court said not so fast.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, overseeing Florida, Georgia and Alabama, denied a ticket refund worth more than $200 million. But it also denied the local governments’ request to dismiss the class-action lawsuit, thereby allowing it to proceed.
A final decision won’t happen anytime soon.
The case is under review at a lower federal court in Miami, where the aggrieved drivers sued for a refund more than a year ago. Lawyers for the cities and counties went to the 11th Circuit in Atlanta in an attempt to undermine their claim.
Further complicating matters, a state appeals court ruling in July found the city of Aventura’s red light camera program was perfectly fine. Aventura is a defendant in the class action suit.
The maze of legal proceedings will likely land in the Florida Supreme Court, said Sheila Dunn, communications director for the National Motorists Association. A ruling from the high court would apply throughout the state.
“Our hope is that the state supreme court will find red light cameras illegal,” Dunn told Watchdog.org.
“If they’re illegal, then the ill-gotten gains should certainly go back to motorists,” she said.
In 2014, the 4th District Court of Appeal invalidated the red light camera program in Hollywood, Fla., for unlawfully delegating police power to a red light camera vendor called American Traffic Solutions.
The Arizona-based company, also a defendant in the class-action lawsuit, was selectively determining which photos to send to Hollywood’s traffic enforcement office where the tickets were effectively rubber-stamped.
“The tickets are void and should be dismissed,” the court concluded.
The class action suit alleges other local governments operated similar red light camera programs, and the ticket proceeds resulted in “unjust enrichment.”
But in July, Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal determined that the neighboring city of Aventura’s program did not violate the law.
“The question thus becomes whether the vendor’s (American Traffic Solutions’) review in this case involves the exercise of unfettered discretion. We hold that it does not,” the court said.
Red light cameras are now illegal in Hollywood, but not several miles away in Aventura.
Still reeling from the fiscal effects of the 2008 economic downturn, state lawmakers authorized red light cameras in 2010, with the express intent of improving public safety — but with the added prospect of millions of dollars for state and local governments.
The cameras have proved an unpopular source of revenue, while providing little in the way of measurable safety improvements and potentially contributing to an increase in traffic accidents.
According to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 3,453 traffic accidents occurred from 2011-2014 at red light camera intersections before the cameras were installed.
Using comparable metrics, the department reported 3,959 accidents occurred at the same intersections after cameras were installed – an increase of 15 percent.
The number of rear-end collisions increased during the period by 10 percent. Crashes involving non-motorists rose 17 percent, and crashes resulting in incapacitating injuries jumped 29 percent.
The department said an increase in the number of drivers during the period may have contributed, but wouldn’t account for the entire 15 percent.
According to a legislative analysis, about $128 million in citations is expected to be remitted to government coffers every year.
More than 936,000 tickets were issued in 2015, according to DHSMV.
The revenue is split between the state and the local government that issues the citation. The city or county retains $75 for every $158 red light camera ticket. The remaining $83 goes to the state.
By law, local governments must procure the services of a red light camera vendor. The contract term generally ranges from three to five years, and local governments typically pay between $4,250 and $4,750 per camera, per month, according to the Office of Policy Analysis and Governmental Accountability.
A Watchdog.org review of the state elections database found American Traffic Solutions made 389 financial contributions since 2010, when red light cameras were legalized, totaling nearly $1.2 million. The recipients included the Florida Democratic Party, the Republican Party of Florida, and a sizable number of legislators from both parties.
“Everybody gets a cut,” Chris Torres, a Tallahassee defense attorney, said in an interview.
A state research survey of local governments that operate red light camera programs found that 49 percent of the money collected went to red light camera vendors.
About 80 percent of local government respondents reported excess revenue after vendor payments and other program expenses. Nearly all of the remaining revenue went into local general funds and to law enforcement.
Sixteen percent of local red light camera programs struggle to make vendor payments and lost money, according to the survey.
“They’re in a lot of trouble if they have to give the money back,” Torres said.
The 65 cities and counties named in the class action lawsuit claimed a defense of “sovereign immunity” to avoid paying back the ticketed motorists.
Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that states the government is immune from civil or criminal prosecution.
Both federal courts denied the defense, stating that the legal principle doesn’t apply to “unlawful monetary extractions.”
Get Florida Watchdog.org on Twitter and Facebook!
Know something we don’t? E-mail us at email@example.com
Watchdog.org is a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity