Palm Coast has suspended a key segment of its red-light camera enforcement program pending the outcome of a court case in Hollywood. The city may also ask a judge whether its contract with the private firm running the red-light camera system remains valid, or could be thrown out, again pending the outcome of the Hollywood case. In other words, Palm Coast may find a way out of a contract that otherwise would be in place until 2019.
But the city isn’t at that point yet, and may not even get to that point. Palm Coast hasn’t suspended all red-light infraction enforcement. The heart of the program is still in place, cameras are still flashing, and drivers are still getting $158 “Notices of Violation,” which they are expected to pay.
It’s only when drivers refuse to pay that initial $158 fine and their “Notice of Violation” converts into a $264 traffic ticket administered by the court system that Palm Coast is not enforcing the step, because a court has declared that step illegal. Palm Coast doesn’t issue those tickets. Its red-light camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions, does. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeal in October ruled that such tickets may not be issued by a third-party vendor such as ATS. They must be issued by a government agency. Palm Coast government does not have the means to take on that responsibility. So it is foregoing enforcement, for now, City Manager Jim Landon told the Palm Coast City Council Tuesday morning.
Drivers could in essence choose not to pay their initial $158 fine and force the “Notice of Violation” to turn into an unenforceable ticket, which the state calls a Uniform Traffic Citation, or UTC. They would not be pursued, for now. But drivers would also be gambling. The fact that the city is not enforcing that segment of the process doesn’t mean that it won’t, in the future, should a court reverse the October decision: the 5th Circuit is, in fact, rehearing the case, and may do just that—or it may reaffirm its earlier decision. No one knows which way the court will rule.
If the court reaffirms the earlier decision, then the drivers who choose not to pay their tickets win: they won’t be prosecuted for the more expensive UTC violation. But if the court reverses, then the drivers are on the hook for the more expensive ticket.
“I don’t want anybody to think that, OK, well, now I’m not going to get a UTC because as soon as the court rules, there is a potential they could get a UTC,” Landon said.
Landon and the council discussed the matter for almost an hour Tuesday because of the broad ranging ramifications of that October legal ruling. Several cities in Florida have suspended their red-light camera programs altogether as a result. Many, like Palm Coast, have suspended only the second step. All cities and counties are wrestling with the decision’s meaning because local governments are currently on slippery ground regarding their red-light camera programs. Those governments, should they continue enforcement, could face dire financial consequences should a legal decision finally declare any step of the process illegal, as that would essentially invalidate serious enforcement across the board. Cities also fear, as does Council member Jason DeLorenzo, that they would be on the hook for millions of dollars in reimbursements due formerly penalized drivers should the system be declared invalid. “My whole concern is that we’re going to see a big bill at the end of this,” DeLorenzo said.
So Palm Coast, in Landon’s view, has taken a middle-road approach: “So what we have done, I think, is what’s most prudent,” Landon said, “and that is don’t try to cancel the contract without valid ground, but also take action to suspend that portion the court has said they don’t agree with the process.”
Should the court reverse itself, the old system is back in place: drivers are fined $158, and if they don’t pay, the fine jumps to the higher level, becomes a legal state violation. Should the court reaffirm its decision, Palm Coast will then explore getting out of its contract.
“If the current appeal decision stands, and ATS cannot send out UTCs,” Landon said, “then city council will have two choices. One of them is to amend our contract with ATS and have city staff start sending out UTCs and taking on that cost and that time to abide by what the court ruling is for UTC process. Or, we could say, No, we’re not going to, and stay where we are today. And then, the contract becomes very interesting, because now we’ve got a section of it that no longer is consistent with state law. And at that point, and this is preliminary, but what Robin and Bill [the city attorneys] have advised me is that their recommendation is going to be—based on what they know today, and it could change—is that they would suggest that we take our contract to a judge and ask, do we have a valid enforceable contract, or does this court ruling basically void the contract, and we’d have to have a new contract. The reason why that step is important is because ATS, if we just say no, the contract is null and void because of the UTC, and we lose, we’re talking millions of dollars, tax dollars. So instead of taking that risk, going to the court and saying please rule as to whether or not this contract is valid.”
That would happen only at the completion of the appeal at the 5th circuit court. If Palm Coast were to abort the contract now, it could cost the city between $4 and $5 million.
“I’m uncomfortable keeping the Notice of Violation going without the UTC,” Landon said, “without knowing for sure exactly, making sure we’re meeting state law, we have a valid contract. A lot of those questions need to be answered.”
At the start of his presentation, Landon told the council that the original intent of the cameras has been met: cameras have lowered the incidence of tickets being issued by more than 80 percent, compared to when they were first installed in 2007. The issuance of tickets has fallen even in more recently installed cameras, as the two-year trend shows. Landon did not mention that the enforcement criteria have changed considerably in the interim, however, making comparisons of numbers between one year and another somewhat less than apples to apples. And there’s no Palm-Coast specific data on how many people are getting ticketed more than once, or how many are in town as opposed to out-of-town residents. But the trend remains: fewer tickets are being issued.
That being the case, DeLorenzo—long an opponent of red-light cameras—said it may be time to end the re-education campaign. “You’ve shown that for the last three years we’re basically flat, so how long do you have to maintain a program to keep the same results? We don’t run seat belt commercials anymore, right? Everyone wears their seat belt. We are one of the strongest recycling communities in the state. We’ve changed our culture. So how long do we need to maintain our program to keep the culture?”
“The contract was designed to make that decision in 2019,” Landon said. “With the court case city council may be able to make that decision before 2019.”
This morning’s discussion on red-light cameras was significant in another respect: it was the first time the council’s new members, Steven Nobile (who got elected in part due to his opposition to red-light cameras) and Heidi Shipley (who’s hedged on the cameras) could take part. Shipley remained silent throughout. Nobile did not. His concern, aside from the red lights’ grayish constitutional issues, is not the court case or the ultimate validity of the contract. It’s the economic drain effect of the red-light cameras, since 75 cents of every dollar the cameras generate in fines is sucked out of the local economy: most goes to Tallahassee, and the rest goes to Arizona-based ATS and its shareholders.
“Generally we’re looking at $1.8 million this year leaving our economy,” Nobile said.
“And that’s one of the drawbacks,” Landon said.
“That’s a huge drawback, because what we’re talking about now is punishing the entire community, not just the person who received the violation. And, we’re not even sure the right person received the violation. We take this from two perspectives. One is, in the context of a constitutional republic where you have a presumption of innocence, where we have the Sixth Amendment where you’re allowed to face your accuser, and then you have from the financial aspect of, we’re talking $1.8 million. Over the next five years, that’s $10 million, plus a multiplier effect which I just read the other day, it was about three times. We’re talking a huge amount of money that’s being taken out of our economy that, like I say, is punishing everyone, not just the violations. And the fact that it doesn’t fall in line with the individual rights that our country is bound on, the fact that you are guilty by association, because we can’t prove who was in the car.” Nobile said he got two such citations “and never ran a red light,” suggesting that two other individuals were at the wheel of cars he owned when the violations took place.
“So at some point you have to weigh the payoff, and this does not, to me, have any value against its negative drawbacks,” Nobile said.
Nobile returned to the same idea half an hour later, when he alluded to a “Hegelian” situation—the first time the German philosopher’s theory of dialectics was ever mentioned at a Palm Coast City Council meeting, and possibly any local government meeting. Nobile meant that the community had gone through the dialectic steps of an argument: the thesis was that the installation of the cameras would make roads safer, the antithesis was the “outcry” the cameras triggered, and “we’ve moved our liberties in a direction not suitable for this country,” Nobile said. “And now we have a new synthesis that is going to start.”
“It’s more Cartesian than Hegelian,” council member Bill McGuire said—an odd rejoinder, since the one thing the red-light camera system has lacked all along is the certainty of agreed-upon facts and premises from which a logical system could be built: the city’s difficulties with the system, whose definitions the Legislature changes compulsively, stresses the point, as did McGuire himself when moments earlier he termed “pathetic” the goings-on at red-light camera hearings.