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In Boon to Palm Coast, Appeals Court Rules Traffic Spy-Cams Legal Even Without State Law

| November 30, 2011

Sunup--or sunset--for spy-and-snap cameras in Florida.

In the space of three days in January 2009, Richard Masone was ticketed for allegedly failing to stop at intersections monitored by spy-and-snap cameras in Aventura, between Hollywood and North Miami Beach. Like Palm Coast, that city had installed red-light cameras in 2007, three years before a state law made the devices legal by regulating them under one universal rule.

Masone sued the city. He claimed that the cameras were outside the city’s authority, and that the city’s ordinance controlling them should be declared invalid. Only the Legislature, Masone argued, had the authority to legislate red-light cameras, and at the time there was no such legislation, making the cameras illegal. The city countered that penalties were code infractions rather than criminal infractions, and that they were non-moving violations, even though a vehicle had to be moving to trigger such a violation.

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A trial court ruled in favor of Masone, saying state law clearly requires that a citation may be issued only when a police officer “observes the commission of a traffic infraction.”

Earlier today, the Third District Court of Appeal, whose rulings apply only in South Florida but may influence legal decisions elsewhere, overturned that decision, declaring red-light cameras legal even when cities administered them on their own, before the state legislated and regulated them. The ruling is significant for several reasons. Legislation has been introduced to repeal the 2010 law making red-light cameras legal. That legislation, if successful, could be re-drafted in light of the appeals court’s decision, either to forbid municipalities from enacting red-light ordinances or to do the reverse–to leave it explicitly up to local governments to police their roads with cameras. If the law is not repealed, the decision today buttresses arguments against a movement that seeks to invalidate municipalities’ red-light systems that pre-dated the 2010 law, or declare all spy-and-snap cameras illegal. Today’s decision may also be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. (See the full opinion and dissent below.)

Just yesterday (Nov. 29), the Palm Coast City Council agreed to stick with its spy-and-snap cameras at 10 intersections around town even though the cameras no longer generate the revenue they once did, or–other than through anecdotal evidence–have been effective in improving intersection safety. The number of citations issued has fallen considerably since 2007, but that’s true on all roads across the state. City Manager Jim Landon recommended that the cameras be abandoned in case the state repeals its red-light camera law, so as not to leave Palm Coast vulnerable to costly legal challenges.

A class-action lawsuit was filed late last month by Melbourne attorney Stephen Koons, claiming that the cameras are unconstitutional because drivers cannot face or question their accuser (as they may in court, when a police officer writes a citation). The lawsuit is directed at the 2010 law.

Today’s decision, written by Judge Angel A. Cortiñas and joined by Judge Alan Schwartz, concludes that cities have “broad home rule and police powers” under the state Constitution and state law as long as those powers don’t conflict with state law. Florida statute, however, also reserves all traffic laws to the state. “Notably, however, the Uniform Traffic Control Law also expressly recognizes the power of municipalities to pass traffic ordinances for the regulation of municipal traffic in their respective jurisdictions,” the court ruled, though the law cited does not differentiate between regular traffic lights as means of regulating streets and red-light cameras. The judge interprets both as “traffic control devices.”

In wording particularly relevant to Palm Coast in light of Tuesday’s decision by the council to keep the spy cameras primarily as safety devices, the court ruled: “The City is in a unique position to identify dangerous intersections within in its boundaries and implement additional safeguards to prevent accidents at such intersections. Accordingly, the City’s enactment of the Ordinance to regulate traffic through the use of cameras was a proper exercise of the granted authority to regulate, control, and monitor traffic movement.”

The trial court had also found Aventura’s ordinance in conflict with state law in so far as a live police officer must observe an infraction before issuing a citation. Cameras, of course, are inert. In what appears to be creative reasoning on the court’s part, the judge wrote that state law applies only to live police officers operating within the state’s Uniform Traffic Control Law–not to “the type of officer” a city appoints “for the distinct purposes of viewing recorded images and issuing corresponding citations in accordance with the Ordinance.”

“Essentially,” the court wrote, “the Ordinance supplements law enforcement personnel in the enforcement of red light infractions.” But the judge sidestepped the matter of live officers versus cameras by not addressing it, and instead ascribing the ultimate responsibility of issuing citations to individuals who nevertheless are doing so on the sole basis of images snapped by spy cameras, without any other corroborating evidence.

The decision drew a strong dissent from Judge Leslie B. Rothenberg, who reminded the court that the uniform traffic law was an outgrowth of the elimination of 16 different municipal court systems in the state, each with its own different powers to regulate roads. Rothenberg writes that home rule powers are inviolable “except as otherwise provided by law.” The issue, she continued, is whether an unmanned photo enforcement red light ordinance “is expressly preempted by or is in conflict with Florida law. It is both.”

While red-light cameras neither regulate nor restrict traffic, the judge wrote, and while Masone, the driver who originally brought the suit, does not even claim that the use of red-light cameras is in conflict with Florida law, he does argue (correctly, the judge writes) that state law “does not expressly grant municipalities the authority to: (1) enforce by ordinance, violations of traffic infractions, including red light violations, already being enforced under Florida’s uniform traffic laws; (2) punish alleged violators on an adjudication on the merits in a “court” unauthorized by the Florida Constitution or state statute; (3) create a different standard of proof and liability for red light violations than that which has been approved by the Legislature; and (4) establish penalties not authorized by” law.

In essence, Rothenberg is arguing that the majority opinion put forth a straw-man argument, creating a conflict that was not there (or alleged) and batting it down, outside of Masone’s actual claims.

“The city is essentially utilizing the state’s uniform traffic control devices (traffic lights), approved and regulated by the state for enforcement of the state’s uniform traffic control laws, to punish violators through the City’s own enforcement program and to pocket the revenues it collects for its own benefit,” Rothenberg concludes. “This is exactly the sort of inconsistent application of traffic laws and traffic penalties the people and legislature of this state sought to preclude by abolishing all of the municipal courts and enacting a uniform statewide traffic control system. While the Legislature granted municipalities the authority to regulate, restrict, or monitor traffic within their jurisdictions, the Legislature did not expressly grant municipalities the authority to enforce the same traffic infractions identified and already regulated in chapter 316 through their own ‘system of justice.’ If that were the case, there would be no uniformity–only confusion.”

Florida Third District Court of Appeals ruling on Red-Light Spy Traffic Cameras, Nov. 30, 2011

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16 Responses for “In Boon to Palm Coast, Appeals Court Rules Traffic Spy-Cams Legal Even Without State Law”

  1. Jean Meekhof Miller Stowell via Facebook says:

    It is obvious they are working. They worked well in Virginia also.

  2. Brian Larson says:

    I`m just tired of the the city counsel lying through their teeth , they keep saying it`s not about the money, but now they aren`t making as much because they have to give a cut not only to the people they got the camera`s from , but also the state , they decided to add more camera`s to make up the lost revenue, personally I get a ticket cause they don`t think I stopped long enough at a red light before I turn , they can shit in one hand and wish in the other and see which fills up first before they get a dime from me.

  3. global 3922 says:

    Good thing these cameras. Respect the driving laws & you wont get a ticket. We’ve got too many stupid ignorants, idiots who cannot understand the necessity of these cameras.

  4. JIM.R says:

    Next step are cameras in your living room and bedroom. but don’t worry about it , as long as you respect he law it’s o.k.

  5. Michael Stavris via Facebook says:

    And in new York

  6. ditto says:

    Jim R you must be another one who was ticketed. All I can say is OH DARN!!!

    • Brian Larson says:

      The cameras would be fine if they haven`t rigged the lights so you get stuck at every single one , and they made them longer and the time they stay yellow shorter to get people so fed up at being caught at the red light you try and go through it , but your too stupid to see what they are doing , they are costing us twice the amount of gas it should take to drive through town , I go to Palatka all the time , they have as many lights and as much traffic , but the traffic flows smooth the way it should when all the lights are set up to turn green in one direction and red in the other , wake up and smell the scam these morons are pulling on you you moron!!!

  7. in palm coast says:

    I am still waiting to recieve my citation in the mail. I was traveling west on Palm Coast parkway at normal travel speed. When I was about 60 feet from the intersection, the light went to yellow. I attempted to stop, but I would have come to a stop in the intersection, so I proceeded on. I hope these cameras have video as well as snapshot showing that I did try to stop, that it would have been unsafe to make the stop and if and when I go to court,, that the judge realizes the situation and cuts me a break

  8. Bob E. says:

    I read the article about this in this weeks edition of the Observer the revenue amounts spoken by Councilman Meeker are grossly under stated and inaccurate when he states the red light cameras are not a cash cow for the city. The article states that this, “The monthly gross revenue collected from citations is $24,171. Of that $12,740 (53%) goes to the state; $6,877 (28%) goes to ATS; and $4,585 (19%) goes to the city.” Further in the article it states that in 2010 the average monthly citations issued slipped to 520. Here comes the proof of the gross understating of the revenues. 520 multiplied by $158 per citation generates $82,160 of which 53% is $43,545 to the state, quite a difference from the $12,740 he stated. Then the remaining 47% is split $23,005 to ATS not $6,877, but the biggie here is the remaining 19% for the City then becomes $15,610 per month not the $4,585 that he stated, in fact it is 340% more than he stated, more than triple the amount. With this kind of financial computations it makes you wonder what accountant in the city prepares our budgets?

  9. w.ryan says:

    Why is it that we throw in “Obey the Law and you won’t get ticketed.” The situation stated by IN PALM COAST states exactly the nature of the problem. This is about revenue. If it wasn’t and the city needed a solution they would obey the law themselves by having an agent of the municipality witness and then write tickets for such offenses and/or increase the all stop time during the red sequence. The city disobeyed the law in putting up the cameras. Why is this behavior ok for the city and not ok for it’s citizens? This ruling will be challenged. If we keep cutting our noses to spoil our faces to allow government to have their way, Palm Coast will be an ugly place to live.

    • Ben Dover says:

      Exactly , 2 cites in south florida have removed their camera`s, you cannot ticket a car when you do not know who is driving it, I lend my car out as I `m sure many people do to family and friends, they installed them illegally ,they lie about how much revenue they collect , have rigged the lights ,and continually lie about the fact that they aren`t in it for the money. Read 1984 by George Orwell, this is just the beginning if we let it continue.

  10. ditto says:

    Ben Dover you must be some kind of a trustful person who would loan his car out to someone who breaks the law and then you say I should not be held responsible..

    • Ben Dover says:

      Im just saying the camera`s don`t know who is driving the car, just the license plate number, so they are ticketing the car not knowing who was behind the wheel, which is why it should be left up to law enforcement officer who is on the spot to write the offenders name on a ticket , not code enforcement who illegally installed the camera`s in the first place. And making a right on red is not breaking the law , but if big brother doesn`t think you stopped long enough they try and rob you

  11. PJ says:

    BLAH BLAH BLAH, our Council including our new people still can not run the city except one. Even Landon and his follow me off a bridge or you will be fired staff, even thinks the cameras are a waste of time.

    It’s simple just delay the yellow 1.5-2.0 seconds and there will be less rear end accidents because you have time to clear the yellow . Less side winding t-bones because the lights hold the cars on the red long enough to clear the intersection.

    Just another poor excuse of a city council. I had some hope but so far only the rookie councilman DeLorenzo had the brains to listen to staff. Once again the only one listening and paying attention at the meeting……….

  12. w.ryan says:

    PJ: I agree. Can’t claim safety in place of revenue. Also DeLorenzo is on the ball.

  13. PJ says:

    w.ryan: As you can see some of the folks that have run for office and even have been elected think that the only solution is cameras. They believe that the cameras have all but stopped the worst of the accidents.

    Ok but here is the reality of it all. As i said in my previous comment delay the yellow 1.5-2.0 ceconds and you can avoid many accidents. I don’t say every intersection with a traffic light needs a delay so long but just the ones that have high speed intersections.

    The reality is that only drivers that are aware of the cameras know to slow down, so what about the others who are vistors or new to the area they will most likly get caught.

    The camera are weighted to cacth the unsuspecting driver. To make the drivers safer you (the city) simply need to have a qualified traffic light engineer place the proper time sequence according to the type speeds related to the intersection this will make a bigger difference and impact on the type of accidents.

    Will you still have bad accidents, yes unless you install brick walls that pop up to stop the red light runner you will always have a bad accident. However there should be less.

    Does anyone know how many really bad accidents happened at the red light intersections there are? I bet you may be surpised…………………..

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