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Supreme Court to Hear Red-Light Camera Challenge in Case That Will Affect Palm Coast

| August 22, 2013

All lenses on the Florida Supreme Court, which hears the red-light camera case on Oct. 8. (Paul Sableman)

All lenses on the Florida Supreme Court, which hears the red-light camera case on Oct. 8. (Paul Sableman)

Palm Coast adopted its red-light camera ordinance on Jan. 8, 2008. It may have done so illegally, at least until July 1, 2010. By then, its 10 cameras and $125 per ticket had netted the city $1.2 million from 20,219 citations.

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Local governments until then did not have the legal authority to run red-light cameras and levy fines, because state law “preempted” cities and counties from enacting red-light camera ordinances: That’s what the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled a year ago, in connection with an Orlando case. Pre-emption is not a novel concept: the state pre-empts (or essentially forbids) local governments from enacting gun regulations that are at variance from state law, and local governments abide by that preemption religiously.

But the previous year, Florida’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal overturned a lower court and ruled (in a divided judgment) in favor of the city of Aventura and its red-light camera system, finding no conflict between state law and local ordinances.

Last year the Florida Supreme Court agreed to take up the issue and settle the matter for good, resolving the conflict between the Fifth and Third circuit. Earlier this week, the court scheduled oral arguments in what may be the highest-profile case of the year on Oct. 8.

Palm Coast told the Florida Supreme Court on Jan. 22 that it would join the cities of Casselberry and Palm Bay in filing a brief in defense of the red-light cameras set up before the 2010 state law. But that brief was never filed.

The case has no bearing on the red-light camera systems in place after July 1, 2010. Whichever way it’s decided, the cameras in place now are not going anywhere, and the contract Palm Coast signed with ATS stretches to 2017, so even if there is growing disenchantment among Palm Coast City Council members about the system–and there is–they, and their residents, are stuck with it.

On July 1, 2010, a new law went into effect explicitly allowing local governments to run such systems, but also narrowly regulating the systems. It set a fee structure from which local governments could not deviate. Citations had to be $158. It forces local governments to send $83 of that to the state–$70 for the general fund, $3 for a spinal injury trust fund, and $10 for a Department of Health trust fund. That leaves local governments with $75 per ticket, which, in Palm Coast’s case, must be shared with American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based company that runs the city’s 43-odd cameras.

ATS was sued by William Mayfield in a class-action suit involving the Palm Coast red-light cameras as they were set up before July 2010. ATS chose to settle that case, as it has across the state when faced with such suits. The company settled last August. ATS set aside $169,000 (quite a bit less than it had collected) to compensate anyone who files a claim to recoup a share of the red-light camera fines paid between 2008 and July 2010. The compensation available: up to $8.50, a relatively small share of the original ticket.

But Palm Coast didn’t join the settlement, nor has it set aside any money for compensation.

I the Supreme Court were to declare illegal the red-light ordinances that existed before state law regulated them—in other words, if the Supreme Court were to uphold the Fifth Circuit’s decision, as opposed to the Third’s—Palm Coast and other cities may then have to reimburse drivers who were fined under the old system. That means Palm Coast may have to find $1.2 million to pay back, though even if the court were to rule in favor of a reimbursement, it’s unlikely that the bill would be that high, as a significant portion of people fined under the old system would have either moved or will not claim their check. (The city’s 10 cameras before July 2010 generated a total of $1.76 million, of which ATS’s portion was $562,000, according to the city’s finance records, netting the city $1.195 million.)

But the Third Circuit’s opinion gives a roadmap as to how the Supreme Court might reason, if it were to side with local governments. The Third Circuit opinion, written in 2011, noted the recent passage of the Mark Wandall Act—the state law regulating red light cameras. “The plain language makes clear the Legislature is aware of municipal programs like the Ordinance, and in turn, has created a statutory scheme for statewide regulation which in no way invalidates  such existing programs,” the appeal court ruled. “Importantly, the Act does not invalidate existing  municipal traffic monitoring systems, such as red light cameras, but now expressly regulates any such programs and thus, now expressly preempts municipal regulation under the Uniform Traffic Control Law to conform to adopted specifications of the Department of Transportation.”

But the Fifth Circuit also made compelling arguments when it upheld a lower court’s opinion in favor of the man contesting his red-light camera ticket.

That case originated in Orlando, which enacted a red-light camera ordinance in December 2007, a few weeks before Palm Coast did, and with similar consequences.

On May 23, 2009, Michael Udowychenko ran a red light at Conroy and Vineland Roads and issued a citation. He appealed, but did not offer any testimony at his hearing. Rather, he moved to have the citation dismissed because he claimed the city failed to prove that the vehicle in the video was either his or that he was its driver at the time of the infraction. The motion was denied. He was found guilty and ordered to pay $155 (a $125 fine plus $30 in administrative costs).

Three months later he sued Orlando and Lasercraft, the Georgia-based company that administers the red-light camera system for the city. Udowychenko’s argument: Orlando’s red-light camera system was illegal because state law forbade its installation. Governments, including Palm Coast, got around that restriction by defining their system as code infractions rather than moving violations, and placing the administration of the system under their code enforcement department.

A unanimous three-judge panel agreed with Udowychenko.

“At a minimum,” the court ruled, “the ordinance conflicts with state law because it provides for a notice of violation based solely on recorded images and not on the personal observation of a law or traffic enforcement officer,” the fifth circuit ruled, “provides that an individual appointed by the City Council who is not a judge determines the existence of the violation, allows for an adjudication based on proof less than beyond a reasonable doubt, imposes the penalty against the vehicle owner who may not have been the driver, imposes a fine different from that provided by state law, distributes the fines to the City and a private corporation and not as provided by state law, and imposes additional penalties not allowed by state law.”

Few issues have galvanized Palm Coast and Flagler County residents—for or against—as much as red-light cameras, especially since Palm Coast decided to install up to 50 of them aro9und town, up from the 10 it had until last year.

Palm Coast’s agreement with ATS is set up in such a way that the city is guaranteed at least $700 per camera per month, or close to $400,000 a year. That sounds like a lot of money. But it is relatively little compared to the amounts that go to ATS and to the state.

The system issues more than 400 tickets per week, or more than 20,000 tickets a year. The state’s share: more than $1.7 million. ATS’s share: $1.2 million.

Very little of that money ends back in the local economy.

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16 Responses for “Supreme Court to Hear Red-Light Camera Challenge in Case That Will Affect Palm Coast”

  1. Sam says:

    Blood sucking VAMPIRES !!!! These monsters would take the piggy bank away from a 1st grader if they thought they could STEAL a dollar and get away with it !!!!

  2. Sherry Epley says:

    The Red Light Cameras are a violation of our civil rights! They need to be taken down permanently!

  3. Florida Native says:

    When they go there needs to be a package deal with Landon and Netts included in the leaving process.

  4. Seminole Pride says:

    I have always felt that the laws of the roads should be maintain and provided by the proper authorities. i.e. County Sheriff, State Police, and City Police. Code Enforcement Officer of a City have no jurisdiction what so matter in this.

    • Ohno says:

      Anybody familiar with the American concept of law that says you have the right to confront your accuser?
      With red light cameras you get notice after weeks, don’t even remember any particulars and the spend a lot of money to defend yourself if you choose to fight it!

  5. orphan says:

    I hope your tongue was planted firmly against your cheek when you made that comment.
    Just today on the way home from work and in the rain, I witnessed TWO different vehicles at TWO different intersections sliding into the center of a void. Get it? A void. Nothing there. Had both of these vehicles just continued on there would have been zero problems. But that fear of that astronomical charge for ‘running’ a red light must have at LEAST been on their minds when they slid into what was at LEAST an embarrassing situation. Because what is to happen now? By the time (in both cases) these vehicles actually stopped, both of them were in a position to interfere with opposite direction traffic.
    What happened was that one driver skulked back to the front of the line and the other simply decided to continue. And I would just LOVE to imagine that at least ONE of those drivers was a member of the PC hierarchy that started/keeps this thing!!!
    God Bless (my memory of) America.

  6. david says:

    Red light runners that cause crashes are either distracted or DUI. Pretty darn simple. A camera on a pole will never prevent those types of crashes. My concern is not those who run the light 0.3 seconds in to the red, nor is it those who make slow rolling right turns on red (the latter of which only account for 0.4% of all crashes). They pose no danger to others. My concern IS the driver who runs a red light 2, 5, 20 or more seconds in to the red phase and is distracted or DUI. And a camera on a pole is supposed to prevent those types of crashes how?

    If there’s anybody out there who still believes cameras are about safety, and not money, they need to read this article on a study released last week by UT researchers:

    And if any elected official says these devices are about safety, and not revenue, they’re lying and should be voted out of office.

  7. Ann Paris says:

    No they don’t! That is what they want you to believe. People speed through the lights because the yellow light is so short, in order to not get their picture taken. Is that safer? They should really call the yellow light cameras!

  8. Marissa says:

    Look, these cameras were not set up to prevent red light running, quite the opposite. The sole purpose was to create revenue for Palm Coast even though it is the least of what the State and ATS receive. How many moving violations have been issued by deputies in this county?

    The fact that red light cameras are far and few between Florida counties shows they are arbitrary and capricious and impede Commerce for those few selected cities and citizen that must contend with them on a daily basis as opposed to non red light camera districts that don’t.want them or oppose them. Our Palm Coast City fathers and Manager instituted these cameras on a whim without a referendum or vote by Palm Coast residents. Over and over numerous drivers have been issued citations through no fault of their own because the timing has been altered to satisfy revenue not safety. Just today I saw a car in front of me hit his brakes when the red light suddenly changed causing a slight skid due to rain. How many Palm Coast City vehicles have been flashed and dismissed by Code Enforcement itself. Not so much to dismiss the fine but more to prove that if you drive this City your odds of receiving a citation are that much greater than if there were no cameras.

  9. Charles "Bub" Robson says:

    The red light cameras are illegal period. These cameras do not give the person who is charged with running the red light DUE PROCESS OF LAW. I hope these cities have to repay the citizen every dam dime plus interest they have blood sucked out of law biding citizens who never had or will have the right to confront their accuser. SHAME, SHAME on Palm Coast and the rest of the blood suckers. Take those cameras down know. Have Police Officers do their job and enforce the red light laws. I did enforce them for about 40 years as an LEO. Police Officers have to testify to get a conviction, red light cameras can not testify to anything. I for one do not go to PC in less it is mandatory I go there due to the red light cameras and I do not run the red lights.

  10. confidential says:

    They went from promoting safety in just the major intersections of Palm Coast to plain and simple dirty profiteering for the State and Traffic Solutions pockets.
    When people have to pay this hefty fines is money that does not get reinvested in our communities because in this miserable economy, if you have to fork over $250 for a fine sure will not buy 250 plus worth of local goods!.
    Wal-Mart had its worst quarter earnings ever given depressed sales…why..? because the middle class an lower classes are broke, unemployed and or homeless in great numbers. Sure the greedy proliferation of these red light cameras does not help at all. But takes people to get out and vote to resolve these issues and properly reward at the ballot box, the ones instrumental for the cameras proliferation. If they continuo this way will be one in every corner not for safety, but for gouging.

  11. Newman says:

    Naples, Florida had enough complaints and finally removed their Red Light Cameras.

    I’d hope Palm Coast will do the same, and vote at the next City Council Meeting to remove the cameras. These cameras really cause a lot of stress and anxiety when driving around town. I wonder why the neighboring cities to the north (St. Augustine) and south (Ormond) don’t have cameras. I guess they want local citizens to be happy and tourist to return.

  12. Geezer says:

    The red light cameras would be ok if ticketed drivers
    had an opportunity to see a judge and present their defense
    without fear of being fined again for losing the hearing.

    As it stands you pay a hefty penalty for losing a hearing.
    It’s rigged to rape our wallets.

  13. Justin says:

    No! It’s rigged to dissuade you from appealing. It’s almost like making your mind up for you to think twice before appealing because you may come away with a double whammy. That’s not the notion or intention of an appeal in our justice system but makes a mockery of being innocent until you come up with more money to prove it.

    The words getting out among tourists, friends and commercial carriers. Stay clear of Palm Coast. Nothing but a nuisance and “highwaymen”.

  14. Tom says:

    Only one way to rid our city of this high tech robbery. Come election boot out every politician that has voted for these cameras…ALL OF THEM. They will get the message loud and clear. I recieved 3 tickets in a 2 week period between July 8th and July 23rd this after NEVER receiving a red light ticket since they were installed. I was shocked and appauled to say the least. Well I was even more shocked and appauled to see my “violation” or lack there of. Apparently starting July 1st the law that prevented red light cameras from ticketing drivers making legal turns on right was changed to benefit the red light camera companies. I was the beneficiary of this change in the law. Needless to say I was ready to fight. I presented my evidence to the city dept in charge of the citaitons and showed a picture of the sign at the intersection of Belle Terre and Pine Lakes….nothing stating “Includes right turns”…my 3 tickets were dropped. How many people just pay the tickets unaware of this loophole? As a former suporter of the red light cameras I’m now on an all out fight to ban them from our city.

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