A proposed bill that would prohibit red-light camera tickets for any right-turn on red, would increase governments’ cost of mailing initial notices of violations sevenfold and penalize cities that don’t provide the state annual reports about their camera programs cleared a Florida House committee 12-1 Wednesday.
If it becomes law, the proposal would further complicate Palm Coast’s already troubled red-light camera program and the city’s relationship with American Traffic Solutions, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based private company that runs Palm Coast’s system and, next to the state, profits most from the revenue the tickets generate.
The bill (PBC HWSS 15-15), sponsored by Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, echoes a bill in the Senate that would impose significant new requirements on local governments that use red-light cameras—namely, reporting requirements and engineering studies that must precede the installation of red-light cameras.
Both bills are opposed by the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties. But with two major court decisions striking down one aspect or another of the legality of red-light camera uses in the past year (but not their use in general), lawmakers who have been seeking to restrict or ban cameras in the past, but failed, now appear more confident that their proposals may succeed.
Last summer the Florida Supreme Court declared illegal all red-light camera programs that had pre-dated a 2010 law regulating such programs. Palm Coast was among the cities that had just such an illegal program. Late last year, an appeal court ruled that it was illegal for cities to use their private vendors to issue certain citations, as Palm Coast was doing with ATS. The latter decision prompted the Palm Coast City Council to seek a revamp of its program, reducing its cameras from 43 to five and seeking to shorten its contract with ATS by two years, ending in 2017, and almost eliminating what money the city was generating from the cameras—but eliminating neither the state’s nor ATS’ share.
That proposal goes before the council next week. It may soon require yet another rewrite.
By banning the issuing of red-light camera tickets for right turns (the ban would not apply to actual police officers or deputies writing such tickets), the Avila bill would eliminate more than half the revenue the red lights generate. The bill would also require cities or their vendor to mail the initial notice of violation by certified mail, not by first-class mail, as they do now. (The certified mail requirement currently applies to the second step, when the initial notice is ignored and the notice of violation converts to a Uniform Traffic Citation under the court system’s jurisdiction.) That means what costs 48 cents to mail would cost $3.30.
And starting in 2016, the Florida Department of Transportation would have to submit reports to the Legislature summarizing certified crash data for intersections with red-light cameras as a way of analyzing the cameras’ effectiveness. That data would be channeled from local governments, which are currently required to provide an annual report to the state on their programs. Many governments do not, but aren’t penalized. The Avila bill would call for a suspension of any government’s camera program pending the submission of its report.
“I don’t think any of us are necessarily going to try to do away with the program right now,” Avila said. “That’s not what we’re here for, that’s not what the [proposed committee bill] is intended to do. What the PCB is intended to do is to put parameters in place where we make the program more accountable, make it more transparent, and try to make it more efficient.” The focus, he said, is on high-speed collisions and fatalities, neither of which the right-turn on red ticketing alleviates. As for the reporting requirement, he said the state isn’t receiving the data needed “in order to fully analyze and to fully come to the conclusion of whether red-light cameras do in fact increase public safety or whether they don’t. So the report, it’s crucial to our understanding of the issue and whether to see if it’s working or not working.”
The Palm Coast administration and city council have repeatedly claimed that the red-light camera program makes intersections safer by changing driver behavior. But no data has ever been presented to back up the claim. The highway patrol’s crash data indicates that for the county as a whole, the last three years’ crashes, coinciding with the city’s use of the 43 cameras, have tallied up higher totals than in any previous years, contradicting the claim that driver behavior has improved.
Casey Cook, a Florida League of Cities lobbyist, opposed most provisions of the bill, and said requiring cities to send out certified mail notices initially cannot be justified. “The question we have here is, what’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” he asked.
Dave Kerner, a Lake Worth Democrat, responded acidly. “I’m trying to say this with all due respect, sir,” he said. “How is providing more notice to our constituents that they’ve been cited by the government that we in tend to take their money and put it into the general revenue, wherever it may go, that we’re going to take their money under the color of law, under what circumstance would it be not the proper thing to do to give them more notice? Because one thing that happens, by the way, is let’s say we’re up here serving as legislators and I get a red-light camera ticket in West Palm Beach and they mail it to my address. I’m not there to get it. I default on the ticket. It then becomes UTC, it’s delivered by certified mail, but now my fine has doubled, it’s part of the statewide system that tracks tickets, so now I have a UTC against me.”
“I don’t disagree with some of the points that you made,” Cook said. “I would like to say though that we don’t think the system is broken, and that this seems to be a solution to a problem that in our opinion does not exist right now.”
When Kerner asked Cook if he could provide any example of a government agency “empowered to take people’s money under the color of law for a violation of that law without providing proper notice,” Cook could not. “I need to do more research,” he said.
Kerner’s opposition to red-light cameras is no surprise: he is the lawyer who represented the plaintiff in the Orlando case that resulted in last summer’s Supreme Court decision against pre-2010 red-light cameras. He’s also the lawyer representing plaintiffs in an ongoing class-action suit against the system. Explaining his vote in favor of the proposed bill at the end of the 70-minute hearing today before the House Highway and Waterway Safety Subcommittee, Kerner sounded as if he was offering closing arguments to a jury.
“I’m not an advocate of abolishing the Mark Wandall Act,” he said, referring to the 2010 law that legalized and regulated the uses of red-light cameras. “I think that red-light cameras and their citations have a place in our society and a place in traffic safety. But as a lay person and as an attorney, as a legislator, seeing these things in action, there are two issues that concern me, and one is the overriding concern that the vendors involved are there for a profit purpose. And that’s fine, it’s capitalism and it’s America. But we can’t let that concern of profit-making filter into our local governments. And I’ll make a point by responding to a comment that was made by somebody that was testifying, and I know that it was said in good faith and with respect. But when you say that just like the state doesn’t like the federal government telling them what to do, neither do the cities when it comes to their budgets. Folks, members, this is over half a billion dollars of our constituents’ money that was paid as a fine.” (The figure referred to an earlier point made by another committee member regarding the sum total of dollars taken over several years.) “Whether they deserve to pay that or not is not the issue that I want to discuss today. But what my concern is, is that this is not the cities’ money. This is not tax revenue. This is not impact fees. This is not designed to sustain a level of government. So when you tell me that we don’t like being told what to do with our money, it’s not your money. It’s my constituents’ money.”
His “second issue,” as he returned to it, was the certified-mail requirement. “I don’t care if it costs the city $3 or $4, they’re getting $158 minimum for that ticket. The least we can do is provide our constituents proper notice that they violated the law,” he said.
The bill provision provoking the most disagreement from opponents is the ban on right-turn tickets, which Stephane Dembinsky, police chief in Daytona Beach Shores and a director of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, said would impede live officers’ authority to write tickets. Kerner called the claim “categorically not true.”
The only dissenting vote was that of Richard Stark, a Broward County Democrat. “I realize I am old school. I took driver’s education in 1969,” Stark said. “This guy he was the football coach and you didn’t stop at that stop sign, you didn’t stop at that red light, they were all over you.” That standard should remain, he said. “I can’t support something like this.”