|Cash Cow, Sacred Cow|
|Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer|
Red-light cameras remain at the center of debates ranging from safety to municipal autonomy
The Tesla Model S can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in under three seconds. It has an air filtration system with a “bioweapon defense mode” that the manufacturer claims can remove 99.97 percent of allergens, bacteria, exhaust pollution, and other contaminants from the interior. And it doesn’t need gas, just a few hours of charging from a device installed by a Tesla-trained electrician.
“Oh, I love it,” says Gilbert Schwartz, a 78-year-old Tesla owner and retired school administrator who lives in Aventura.
What he doesn’t love are red-light cameras. Last August employees from American Traffic Solutions (ATS) in Tempe, Arizona, got a good look at Schwartz’s blue Tesla after one of the firm’s cameras videotaped it running a red light at NE 199th Street and West Country Club Drive, a three-way intersection next to Turnberry Isle Resort with two-left turn lanes, one lane heading north, and four traffic lights overhead.
The images were then shared with the City of Aventura, which mailed Schwartz a bill for $158, with an option to contest it at a hearing. If Schwartz won, the ticket would be dismissed; if he lost, he’d pay even more.
Schwartz decided to contest. He was hopeful the judge would give him a lesser fine, or dismiss it, after hearing his explanation: He was traveling north in the right lane (which had a green light) when he noticed a construction work crew. So he zipped into the left-turn lanes, where the light was red and then zipped back into the right lane -- through the red light. There were hardly any cars on the road at the time. “I thought I had a reasonable defense,” he says.
After months of delay, Schwartz got his day in court this past December. Only it wasn’t a court. It was a code enforcement board session, presided over by a special master, in the Aventura Police Department’s conference room. Schwartz says he was quickly found in violation and so were 20 other people, no matter what their arguments were. “It was a kangaroo court,” he says. “What really pissed me off was the $100 administrative fee.” Total cost to Schwartz: $258.
Unlike traffic violations levied by police, the tickets issued by red-light cameras are initially deemed code violations, similar to citations a city would issue a homeowner for having a hedge that’s too tall. Those who don’t pay the fine, which can balloon as high as $500, or who don’t get charges dismissed, won’t be able to renew their vehicle tags. From there, the violation can wend its way into traffic court, where the automobile owner’s license can be suspended.
Another difference between a ticket issued by police and a red-light camera: the owner of the automobile receives the ticket, not the driver. If the owner wasn’t driving, he or she has 30 days to send an affidavit to the red-light camera company explaining the situation, including if the vehicle was stolen. Otherwise, the car owner will be responsible for paying or contesting the ticket.
Red-light cameras have been controversial in Florida since 2007, when they started popping up in cities and counties across the state. The cameras aren’t installed by the cities, but rather private red-light camera companies that have contracts with local governments. The largest provider of traffic-light cameras in Florida is ATS, which has placed 3200 cameras across North America.
Currently, 15 cities in Miami-Dade County use ATS red-light cameras. Five of those have neighborhoods east of I-95: the City of Miami, Aventura, North Miami Beach, Surfside, and Bal Harbour. The City of Miami Beach also has red-light cameras, although they’re provided by Xerox State and Local Solutions Inc. A county law, passed in June 2016, bans red-light cameras in unincorporated areas.
There are ongoing attempts in Tallahassee to end the age of traffic cameras. The Florida House of Representatives will hear a bill on March 7 that could ban red-light cameras by 2020. Another bill, proposed by State Sen. Daphne Campbell, whose district includes Aventura and most of the Biscayne Corridor, aims to remove traffic light cameras in four years, too. A third pending bill, proposed by State Sen. José Javier Rodriguez of Miami’s Coral Way area, seeks to reduce fines issued by red-light cameras to a maximum of $50.
Some cities are fighting to keep the red-light camera program alive. Among them is the City of Aventura, which has cameras operating at eight intersections and, in 2008, was the first city in the county to obtain cameras.
With no discussion, the Aventura City Commission, at its January 10 meeting, affirmed that the “local control” of red-light cameras was among its legislative priorities.
“The priority is to ‘preserve municipal authority for red light camera safety programs,’” states Eric Soroka, city manager of Aventura, in an e-mail to the BT. “Over the years, the state legislature has attempted to eliminate the program. The City Commission feels this is a local issue that should be decided by local government, not state government.”
The City of Miami has a different attitude. This past January, the city commission opted to take down red-light cameras from 122 intersections -- including 18 on Biscayne Boulevard and 7 on Brickell Avenue -- if the state legislature outlaws them. Daniel Alfonso, Miami’s city manager, says the cameras can’t be taken down sooner owing to a contract with ATS that runs until 2020.
Proponents of red-light cameras argue that the devices have made the streets safer. Kate Coulson, corporate communications manager for ATS, states that between 2012 and 2015, crashes related directly to running red lights decreased by more than three percent at intersections with red-light cameras. Crashes involving pedestrians and bicycles were down 20 percent. In Aventura, red-light-running fell 18 percent between 2008 and 2016, according to ATS.
ATS states that red-light cameras can also be helpful in other law enforcement matters. According to a February 24 Miami Herald story, red-light camera footage helped convict a man of a murder that took place four years ago.
However, a Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles report, published December 31, looked at car accidents occurring within 250 feet of 148 intersections across the state where red-light cameras were installed between January 2013 and April 2016. The study revealed that crashes actually increased 10.4 percent in those sectors after red-light cameras were installed.
Governments do get a revenue stream from red-light cameras. The cameras are expected to generate $75 million for the state and $73 million for local governments, according to the News Service of Florida.
Aventura took in $2.02 million from red-light camera citations in fiscal year 2014-2015. And each year, $100,000 in citations collected from Aventura’s Intersection Safety Camera Program is sent to the Aventura City of Excellence K-8 charter school. The City of Miami gathered $42.7 million in fines since cameras were installed at its intersections in 2011, according to Orlando Aguilera, special projects coordinator for the Miami Police Department.
“This is a money generator for cities -- period,” says State Sen. Frank Artiles of Kendall, adding that, as a state legislator, he has tried to outlaw red-light cameras for the past six years. His latest bill to ban the cameras died in the Senate Transportation Committee on February 7 due to a tie vote.
But State Senator Campbell, who claims she’s been against red-light cameras throughout her legislative career, is confident she can find the votes to have the cameras banned. “Why can’t Florida join the 13 other states who got rid of red-light cameras?” asks Campbell, who says her driver license was suspended because of a red-light ticket.
Red-light cameras aren’t just being challenged in the state legislature. They’re also being litigated in the courts, which has led to conflicting rulings.
In 2014, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (DCA) ruled that the City of Hollywood cannot delegate law enforcement functions to a private company. That ruling basically made red-light cameras illegal in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
But last July the Third DCA ruled in favor of Aventura, arguing that it was actually the police officers who issued the tickets, not ATS. That made red-light cameras legal in Miami-Dade County, so long as videos are reviewed by sworn officers. However, the Third DCA ruling has asked that the Florida Supreme Court make a definitive ruling on the case.
Ted Hollander, a partner in the Ticket Clinic law firm, says he has filed a brief with the Florida Supreme Court. “We’re just waiting for them to decide if they’ll take the case or not,” he says. “We haven’t heard one way or the other on that.”
In the meantime, Hollander suggests that anyone wishing to contest a ticket not do so in city court hearings. Instead they should hire a traffic attorney and appeal it to county traffic court, where the rules of evidence are uniform and the judge is unbiased.
“I think there’s a real conflict where the city is paying the judge to be for or against the same city,” Hollander says. Asked how he does in traffic court in red-light camera cases, he replies that he had no data, but “we won more than we lost, by far.”
Miami and Aventura conduct their red-light camera special master sessions differently.
In the City of Miami, the hearings take place in the spacious chambers of the Miami City Commission at Dinner Key. Violators are also given a chance to talk to Miami police officers and aides on the side, and are shown their camera videos, before their cases are judged by Special Master Maritza Alvarez.
In Aventura, defendants are led into the police department’s meeting room, where they are then informed by a police officer that the owner of the car is responsible for the citation and that simply slowing at a red light while turning is not sufficient. Also, that turning right on a red light is illegal at 199th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, and 191st and Biscayne Boulevard.
After that, names are read and the defendants are shown videos of their cars zipping past red lights and asked to plea “violation” or “not in violation.” Those who plead “violation” are only given a $50 administrative fee, for a total bill of $208. Those who plead “not in violation” are slapped with a $100 fee when found guilty. Out of 60 people heard on February 8, only two were determined to be not in violation and one was continued to another case date.
Raquel Rothman, a Snyder Law Firm attorney, says she’s heard as many as 4000 traffic cases since she was named Aventura’s special master in 2009. “You can put in there that I do this on a pro bono basis,” Rothman tells the BT.
“I think everybody should be involved in their community, and I think it’s a very important safety program.”
Adds Officer John Methvin: “Accidents went down at 199th Street and Biscayne Boulevard by 66 percent [since red-light cameras were installed]. We used to have major accidents on Biscayne Boulevard.”
In a heated session, Franklin Valentine, Jr. tried to argue that third-party ticket cameras were unconstitutional. He also pointed out that his license plate was not visible in the camera. Valentine was still found in violation. He’s vowed to appeal the case in traffic court. “I feel like I was completely abused in this situation, especially by the officer who kept on badgering me, who said, ‘Well, you should stop,’” he says. “They didn’t want to hear my side. They just wanted to make sure I got pushed into the system. And that’s all they care about.”
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