A decision on red light traffic cameras by the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach on Friday is flashing chills of anxiety down the spine of Palm Coast’s budget and city council officials–or ought to: if the decision is upheld, it may mean that Palm Coast, and more than a dozen cities that installed spy-and-snap cameras before the state gave them authority to do so, would have to refund the fines they charged countless drivers until the system was brought in compliance with state law in 2010. For Palm Coast, that’s somewhere between $1 and $2 million.
The decision does not affect the current camera set up or the fine structure. That means if you’re caught running a red light at any of Palm Coast’s 10 camera-equipped intersections, you may still face a $158 fine. And even if the decision were upheld, municipalities would contend that drivers who paid their fines gave up their right of appeal. For refunds to be considered, a class-action lawsuit would have ton be filed on behalf of all drivers affected by the scheme.
William Reischmann, Palm Coast’s attorney, filled in the council on Tuesday on the latest decision on the matter, which conflicts with a previous decision, by the 3rd District Court of Appeal, that found the traffic cameras legal even before the state standardized the system. Because of the conflict between the two courts of appeal, it may be up to the Florida Supreme Court to settle the question. The 5th district’s decision is asking the higher court to do just that. That doesn’t mean the higher court will.
“Our office does not recommend any change in direction,” Reischmann said. “We disagree with the decision.”
“The current program, the current red light cameras are in no way impacted by this because they are all falling under the state law,” City Manager Jim Landon told the council by way of reassurance. “These law suits are all based on the idea that we didn’t have authority to install the red light cameras prior to the state authorizing them. It’s a typical home rule. For those of us that believe in home rule, if the state doesn’t pre-empt you from doing it, then you have the home rule to do it.”
That’s not what Judge Jessica Recksiedler ruled. (Recksiedler was the original judge assigned to the George Zimmerman case. She recused herself because her husband works at a law firm where a lawyer is providing commentary on the case for CNN.)
“While local governments have the authority to enact ordinances, they are prohibited from infringing on areas preempted by state law, and in this instance ‘covered’ by the Uniform Traffic Laws of the State of Florida, or conflicting with state statute,” Recksiedler wrote.
The problem with the Orlando spy-and-snap system Recksiedler was referring to was similar to Palm Coast’s: the cameras were not installed by law enforcement or by a state agency, but by the cities’ code enforcement departments, in contravention to a state law, in place at the time, reserving traffic cameras to state authorities.
The law “specifically states the intent of the Legislature for uniformity of the traffic laws throughout the state prohibiting any local government from enacting or enforcing local laws covered by or in conflict with [that law],” Recksiedler ruled for a unanimous three-judge panel, “clearly indicates the Legislature’s intent to expressly preempt to the state the enforcement of traffic signal violations except for the limited local regulation allowed by the law.” What was especially objectionable was Orlando’s enforcement of a system reserved for the state.
Beginning July 1, 2010, the “Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act” went into effect, allowing a county or municipality to use “traffic infraction detectors” at intersections. But the new law implemented a statewide red light enforcement program regulating the use of any traffic infraction detector on state, county, and local municipal roads, and it made the citations uniform, with just over half the penalty going to the state. thus eliminating local municipalities’ use of the cameras as
“The key to it is that it does not impact any of the red light camera citations since the state definitely gave us authorization because at that point that whole issue is moot,” Landon said. “Because a lot of people are going to say oh, look at that, they found the red light cameras not legal. That’s back to 2010.”
The Orlando case was brought by Michael Udowychenko, argued that the state’s 2011 law was, in fact, a preemption law in response to at least 26 municipalities with red light programs similar to Daytona Beach’s–and Palm Coast’s. The case is part of a statewide push by Dave Kerner, a lawyer with the West Palm Beach firm of Schuler, Halvorson, Weisser and Zoeller, to refund drivers cited under pre-2010 spy-and-snap schemes. Kerner intends to file a class-action suit should the decision by the 5th DCA be upheld.