Urging the state Supreme Court to take up the controversial issue, an appeals court Wednesday rejected a motorist’s arguments that a South Florida city had given too much authority to a company that operates red-light traffic camera programs.
The 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned a Miami-Dade County judge’s ruling against the city of Aventura in a case involving a motorist who received a ticket for improperly turning right at a red light. In challenging the ticket, motorist Luis Torres Jimenez contended the city had illegally given “unfettered discretion” to a red-light camera company to review images of potential violations and to print and send out citations.
Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman dismissed the citation, pointing to a 2014 decision by the 4th District Court of Appeal in a similar case in the Broward County city of Hollywood. But Leifman also requested that the 3rd District Court of Appeal, which handles Miami-Dade cases, rule on the issues.
The case is somewhat relevant to Palm Coast as it addresses a similar system, and the same private vendor that administers the system: American Traffic Solutions. Palm Coast’s system, much debated and controversial over the years because of its size, once had spread to some 45 intersections. Last year, following previous court decisions that had put the city’s methods in doubt, the city and ATS agreed to scale back the program to five intersections, and end the contract entirely next year, two years ahead of schedule.
As it is, only four intersections actually have functioning cameras in Palm Coast as ATS opted not to reinstall one at Palm Coast Parkway and Harbor Center, where the low level of citations was not profitable to ATS. The city gets a flat $350 per camera per month, half what it used to get under the previous, broader arrangement. “The city’s share, after administrative expenses,” a city spokesperson said today, “goes in our Streets Improvement Fund, which covers items like street resurfacing and street safety improvements.”
In a 29-page ruling Wednesday, the 3rd District Court of Appeal upheld Aventura’s program, which it said relies on police officers — not the private contractor — to make decisions about ticketing motorists.
“Not only do the bright-line standards promulgated by the city ensure the vendor’s tasks regarding images are purely ministerial and non-discretionary in nature, but the record reflects that no notice or citation is issued unless and until an individual officer of the city weighs the evidence in the images and determines in his or her professional judgment that probable cause exists,” said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Thomas Logue and joined by judges Kevin Emas and Linda Ann Wells. “The officers make these decisions in the same manner they decide to issue a roadside citation.”
But saying the “lawful use of cameras to enforce red lights has attracted the attention of the public, local governments, and the Legislature,” the judges also called on the Florida Supreme Court to take up the case, a move known as certifying issues to the high court. The higher court turned down an appeal on a similar case last year (but one that reached a different conclusion), leaving it to stand.
The role of companies hired by cities to operate red-light camera programs has been highly controversial in recent years. While proponents of the cameras say they improve traffic safety, critics argue that the devices are more about generating money for local governments and the private vendors.
Wednesday’s ruling focused on Aventura’s contract with ATS, a major player in the industry. The contract gave American Traffic Solutions a wide range of responsibilities, including installing and maintaining cameras, reviewing images and mailing notices and citations to motorists.
While Jimenez’s challenge raised issues such as the authority of the company to mail notices and citations, the appeals court focused heavily on American Traffic Solutions’ role in reviewing potential red-light violations.
The ruling said the company sorts through images and puts them into two databases — a “working” database that police review for possible traffic violations and a “non-working” database that police do not use for ticketing motorists. In sorting through the images, the company considers issues such as whether cameras have misfired and whether license plates are legible. It also reviews photos of cars entering and going through intersections.
“The question thus becomes whether the vendor’s review in this case involves the exercise of unfettered discretion,” the ruling said. “We hold that it does not. The record reflects that the type of evaluation exercised in the vendor’s decisions is clerical and ministerial. When sorting images into the working and non-working databases, the vendor separates the images that are usable because they contain certain easy-to-ascertain information, from those that are not usable because they fail to contain that information. For example, the vendor exercises no unfettered discretion when it determines the camera misfired, the traffic light in the image displays green, or the vehicle license plate number in the image is illegible.”
The ruling also tried to draw distinctions with the Hollywood red-light camera program rejected in the 2014 ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal. It said the Hollywood program did not give police officers as much authority in deciding whether motorists were cited.
“In contrast, in the (Aventura) case, the vendor has no authority to decide that a citation will issue,” Wednesday’s ruling said. “Only the police officer, whose name and badge number appears on the citation, decides if probable cause exists and if a notice and citation issues.”
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida