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Palm Coast Broods as Ruling Declares Key Step in Red-Light Camera Ticketing Illegal

| October 28, 2014

They're looking at you all the way from Arizona, and a Florida court finds part of that illegal. (© FlaglerLive)

They’re looking at you all the way from Arizona, and a Florida court finds part of that illegal. (© FlaglerLive)

A Florida court of appeal decision declaring private companies’ issuance of traffic citations illegal has dozens of cities across the state, among them Palm Coast, again rethinking whether they can maintain their red-light camera programs.

That doesn’t mean red-light cameras have been turned off in Palm Coast. They haven’t. But it does mean that ticketed individuals who choose to challenge their ticket in court have a greater chance of seeing that ticket and fine thrown out. And it has Palm Coast officials studying whether the decision may open a door to extricate the city from its contract with American Traffic Solutions, the private company that runs the city’s red-light camera program.

“If in fact ATS cannot issue Uniform Traffic Citations,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said, “and if the city isn’t in a position to do so, then the best advice would be I guess don’t pay your fine and it goes away, which hardly seems fair. So this is the beginning I would guess of a major overhaul of the system, if not an elimination thereof. If not, we shall see.”

The city council won’t meet again until mid-November, so all discussions on the matter are happening, when they’re happening at all, behind the scenes. “Our attorney is reviewing it to determine how it impacts us,” Cindi Lane, the city’s spokesperson, said of the DCA decision on Monday. “I do not believe we’ve received a report back from him with a recommendation.”

The decision was issued on Oct. 15 by the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach. The decision is controlling in three judicial circuits covering six counties in southeast Florida—not Flagler, which is in the 5th District. But that doesn’t mean it has no legal weight in Flagler and the rest of Florida, because so far it’s the only appeals court that has ruled on that particular aspect of the law.

The case has little to do with the initial “notice of violation” and $158 fine issued to red-light runners. Most people who get those notices pay them, and their case is over. The court does not address that step. Nor has it called it illegal, even when private companies issue the notice of violation. It addresses the next step.

When a driver either does not get the initial notice of violation of refuses to pay it, the notice after 60 days immediately becomes a so-called Uniform Traffic Citation, and the fine increases to $264. At that point, it’s no longer a “notice of violation” but a traffic misdemeanor and a court case. But ATS is still the issuer of the traffic citation, which is signed by a “traffic infraction enforcement officer,” although not really: the signature is electronic, and the citation is issued from ATS’s office in Arizona.

A door opens for drivers not to pay their red-light camera tickets and cities to wiggle out of their contracts with ATS.

Under Florida law, the 4th DCA ruled, that’s illegal. Florida law requires that such a citation be issued by an actual traffic enforcement officer, not a third-party vendor, judge Mark Klingensmith wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. (The case emerged from the city of Hollywood, which has a contract with ATS similar to Palm Coast’s. See the full decision below.)

“In Florida, only law enforcement officers and traffic enforcement officers have the legal authority to issue citations for traffic infractions, which means only law enforcement officers and traffic enforcement officers are entitled to determine who gets prosecuted for a red light violation,” Klingensmith wrote, opening a way for drivers to easily contest the initial issuance of the $158 ticket. By law, that officer must be employed by a police agency and be located in the county where the ticket is issued. ATS applies neither criteria to its ticket-issuing. ATS makes the initial determination of violation, too, sending them on to the city for its own determination. If the city concurs, the ticket is cleared for issuance—from Arizona.

“Therefore,” the judge found, “the contract requires ATS to send images and information regarding the violation to the TIEO only if ATS determines in its sole discretion that certain standards have been met, and ATS may withhold sending information if it determines that those standards were not met.” In essence the company, not the city, decides which alleged violations the city gets to review.

“The city also lacks the lawful authority to outsource to a third-party vendor the ability to make the initial review of the computer images of purported violations and then use its unfettered discretion to decide which images are sent to the [traffic enforcement officer], and which ones are not,” the ruling concluded. “The city improperly delegated its police powers when it contractually outsourced its statutory obligations to a for-profit, non-governmental corporation.”

To Netts, the court decision means ATS can still issue notices of violation, but not traffic citations. “Until somebody tells me otherwise, that’s the law of the land,” Netts said. “So my position is ATS cannot issue tickets in Palm Coast. It’s that simple.”

Doug Williams, a Daytona Beach attorney with numerous cases in Flagler County, said the new court decision is legally “persuasive but not controlling.” In other words, it’s not the law of the land, because it was handed down by an appeals court in South Florida that does not have jurisdiction in Flagler. But because it’s the only such decision on the books in Florida, it can easily persuade judges across the state to follow its conclusions should tickets be challenged.

Adam Richardson, a West Palm Beach attorney, points to a 1992 court of appeal decision that states that “in the absence of interdistrict conflict,
district court decisions bind all Florida trial courts,” which would mean that the 4th DCA decision is binding locally.

In Flagler County, Judge Melissa Moore-Stens in April, after a dispute between the Clerk of Court and Palm Coast, issued an order that anticipated the DCA ruling and stated explicitly that “once the Uniform Traffic Citation has been generated by the City of Palm Coast or their designee, the City of Palm Coast does not have the legal authority to accept payment from drivers.”

Click On:

In light of that order and the DCA decision, Williams said drivers can challenge their ticket “in two ways, they can challenge it through Judge Melissa Moore-Stens’s motion, they can also take that 4th DCA case as persuasive. It’s not binding on Melissa at all, but she’s already kind of made her decision the same way.” Williams said he’s been using Moore-Stens’s order to get numerous tickets thrown out.

Tickets that do get converted into traffic citations are not as numerous as they once were, Flagler County Clerk of Court Gail Wadsworth said. “Under the newest law, a clerk of court may dismiss a uniform traffic citation for a red light citation if something or other is found, and what we do, we know that ATS is supposed to mail twice to the proposed defendant. We use exactly the same mailing address they do. When we get something back returned, no forwarding address, addressee not found, whatever the little yellow sticker says, then I sign a document that automatically dismisses that citation, and last month there were 13 to 14 as opposed to 40 or 50, so something has changed for the better.” But Wadsworth doesn’t know what.

In light of the 4th DCA decision, Wadsworth said, “It would make the community, the council and Palm Coast question, if this is illegal, should we continue to do this, or should we back out, should we do something to rid ourselves of this contract.” One candidate for Palm Coast City Council, Steven Nobile, sent an email to council members Friday imploring them to “use the ruling to dissolve our contract with ATS and have the red-light cameras removed from our city as soon as possible.  I fear that this issue will bring our city to its financial knees as one day we will be drowning in a sea of lawsuits demanding the return of the money from citations that have already been issued and paid.” Nobile sent the email after getting confirmation from City Clerk Virginia Smith that Palm Coast’s system with ATS is almost identical to Hollywood’s. (See Palm Coast’s current contract with ATS.)

ATS did not return a call or respond to emailed to its media spokesperson.

But Wadsworth expects ATS to appeal, since ATS has contracts in about 60 Florida communities—and the Florida Attorney General has, in fact, advised local communities with ATS contracts, including Tampa, that “certain aspects” of the 4th DCA ruling should be challenged. “I expect if I were sitting in their shoes, I would appeal, because I imagine the city of Palm Coast and every other entity who uses them is now questioning their contract, and this 4th DCA opinion that they’re illegal, anybody who’s trying to wiggle out, it gives them a tool to wiggle out with.”

Wadsworth is not getting an argument from Netts.

“Our original thought was we need people to obey the traffic signals and here’s a way to get their attention and to get them to understand. It was not overly onerous, the first go-around,” Netts said. “When the state stepped in and upped the ante and brought in the Uniform Traffic Citation component and made it very convoluted and got the court system involved, it just became very, very difficult to administer and to administer easily, equitably, fairly. So this may well be an opportunity to review, revise, revoke. Pick your option.”

4th District Court of Appeal Ruling on Red-Light Cameras, Oct. 15, 2014

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19 Responses for “Palm Coast Broods as Ruling Declares Key Step in Red-Light Camera Ticketing Illegal”

  1. John Smallberries says:

    *wipes miniscule tear from eye*
    *plays a sad tune on a small violin*

  2. confidential says:

    I want my 4 years ago ticket for running a read light where I can only see an SUV like mine but not myself driving it…money back $158. I had no recall of running a read light or even speeding up to avoid one! Wonder if was my own self…as I do not run red lights as a matter of principals. I paid the tkt as I was busy working and traveling on business out of area making a good living…and had not time to appear God knows when scheduled in court. But I always wondered if was me driving that look a like mine SUV, specially as I was told by another palm coaster that she was exempted of paying a tkt when she fought it was able to prove that was another driver in exactly the same car model than hers slightly different color

  3. Carl says:

    Not to mention light rigging and infringing on our right to privacy , pack them up and ship them out , sell them to the prisons to keep inmates safe from the guards

  4. I CAN'T DRIVE 55 says:

    I think most in this town would agree if this was truly about safety and not a money making, double jeopardy scam it would be easier to deal with. Those camera sensors are set up where someone is going to get snagged even if they don’t intentionally look to run a light as soon as the flow of traffic gets going within seconds green, yellow, red, slam on the brakes in a panic or keep going and pray the guy in front of you doesn’t overreact and slam on his brakes before he gets under the light and that usually happens on yellow. The city can say they review before issuing all they want, I wonder how many out of towners are bullied into sending the money back in? If running red lights is the number one safety hazard that requires this amount of attention why doesn’t the government construct and implement crossing gates like at railroad crossings?

  5. Heidi Shipley says:

    In light of this ruling, I sincerely hope that 1. the city’s attorney recommends immediate suspension of the cameras while we wait for a determination 2. figure out a way for the City of Palm Coast to get out of the ATS contract unscathed financially and 3. find a way to get ATS to refund their portion of all the fines collected so far.
    This could be our loophole.

    • Heidi Shipley says:

      We will still have a safety issue though. Now we have detailed data on which cameras are actually needed. This does not solve the problem of people running red lights that have caused fatal accidents all over the country.What it does is teach us is more about the problem, why the system didn’t work having them all over the city and then see what other options we have.

      • w.ryan says:

        Longer interval for all stops! Red for all directions. There is uninsured infractions as well as unsafe lane changes. As long as there is streets, cars and bad judgement there will always be a safety issue!

      • Nancy N says:

        The camera data isn’t an accurate reflection of risk at intersections. It only tells you how many people were able to be trapped by the cameras – a large portion of which are infractions for “rolling rights” or too short stops on right on red which are perfectly safe but get ticketed by the no tolerance for profit cameras.

        The best source of data for intersections that are a risk is the Sheriff’s Dept crash statistics. They can tell you which intersections have issues with red light running crashes, especially highlighting ones that have repeated issues that are out of alignment statistically with the amount of traffic going through them.

        If the city was so worried about safety and not just profits, there would be a light at US-1 and Matanzas. There has been repeated fatal crashes there due to cars pulling out when traffic wasn’t clear. We desperately need a light at that intersection but nothing is done. Meanwhile, the city adds camera after camera at low risk intersections because ATS tells them they can make a profit off of people making safe right turns they can nail.

  6. Michael says:

    I will rip it up in front of City Council during the public comment section if I ever recieve one, what can they do, its illegal to have given us one

  7. Rob says:

    Jon Netts talks out of both sides of his mouth. Thank goodness he can’t run again for mayor. He was dogmatic in the: implementation, application and defense of the red light cameras that have been draining our economy. Now it’s whatever it is. Safe to say it is the worst economy in the state. Don’t count Hendry County it is in the middle of nowhere. Why isn’t he calling on the city attorney to find a way out of the contract in the same vein he needlessly chased after the internet parlors and now medical marijuana.

    What ever happened to the town manager’s effort to dissolve the red light contract? Is he still dragging his feet “looking” into it? Or are he and the mayor waiting until after the election seeing which way the wind blows. Just like the mayor did with the city hall that he back doored in, after he got re-elected. Those who voted him back into office are about as bright as a two watt bulb

  8. Obama 2014 says:

    I would like a local lawyer to start a Class Action lawsuit vs the City and ATS now that it has been proven illegal to issue these tickets. I would like the $1,800 in yellow light and “unsafe” right turns fees paid directly to me and the rest of my family. I don’t care if it takes 10 years I want my money back. Hell I’ll take half just for principal. I do believe the cameras should be up to monitor accidents and actual full red running of lights (which I don’t believe happens as much as you would think) but they should be monitored by the local government and not a 3rd party.

  9. Bob says:

    Just remember who approved these cameras when you go to vote next week!

  10. Jack Stewart says:

    please don’t forget when election time comes around….All those in office now that approved all these cameras… them all out.

  11. buylocal says:

    If you drive a pickup truck, it may be wise to drive with the tailgate down.

  12. Rob says:

    @ Bob & Jack Stewart
    One of them got rewarded by being voted to the County Commission.
    I hope most voters don’t have short memories or believe his benefit outweighs his cost.

  13. ted bundy says:

    if you stop at red lights and before making a right on red BECAUSE IT’S THE LAW, this becomes a non issue..been here 7 years with no tickets/citations..OBEY THE LAW it is that simple..

    • Obama 2014 says:

      I’ve been in driving for 30 years and I received 2 tickets, one for speeding (my fault I was late, I paid the ticket) and another for not moving over when a cop had someone pulled over (I didn’t know it was the law). I fought the ticket and I had the points removed.

      For these money making camera’s I did obey the law.

      Someone watching a video said my stop wasn’t long enough making a right at the red light and since they shortened the yellow light I was running a red just as it turned. Both instances the actions were benign and would not have been ticketed by an officer. (I had an officer review them both). Also the ticket was assigned to me, what if I wasn’t driving, I am already guilty since it was my car. Where is my due process without spending thousands to prove my innocence?

  14. barbie says:

    If they’re on that council now, I voted them out. Anyone in the city who approved this Big Brother, illegal monstrosity should be voted OUT. Too bad we can’t get rid of Netts and Landon while we’re at it, they’re the worst of the bunch.

  15. John Q. Public says:

    There appears to be a common denominator in a once peaceful community of Palm Coast. Before all the arguing, dessention, and division. The city manager has done nothing but cause chaos and meyham. Time for him to be shown the door so we can re-unite our community again. This used to be a nice place to live. Not anymore.

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