Judge Allows Use of Red-Light Cameras

AMERICAN TRAFFIC SYSTEMS CONTRACT LEGAL

 

HAINES CITY – Polk County Court Judge Timothy Coon has ruled the state law allowing red-light cameras is constitutional and the contract Haines City has with American Traffic Systems is legal.

That leaves 47 people with traffic citations who challenged their tickets either having to pay their $158 fines or appeal the ruling.

Lawyer David Bergdoll, who represented the city, said the case could be appealed to the chief judge of Circuit Court and eventually to the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

The Highland City lawyer said that so far, the cases he’s been involved with in Lakeland and Cocoa Beach have not been appealed.

The lawyer representing the 47 people challenging the law, Joel Mumford, could not be reached for comment Wednesday on whether an appeal is planned. His law firm, The Ticket Clinic, with offices in Central and South Florida, specializes in these challenges.

City Manager Ken Sauer said Wednesday, “I am pleased with the outcome of the case.”

So was Police Chief Rick Sloan.

“We’re obviously pleased with the outcome,” he said.

Authorized under legislation passed in 2008, the red-light camera program is designed to be a deterrent to running red lights. The state law is known as the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Program because it was named for a man who was killed in Florida by a red-light runner who left a pregnant wife.

Statewide that year, 76 fatalities that year attributed to red-light runners.

Then-Gov. Charlie Crist issued a statement in 2008, saying the intent of the legislation was to protect Florida residents.

Haines City Police Chief Rick Sloan and City Manager Ken Sauer said Wednesday they were pleased with the ruling.

More than 7,000 tickets were issued in the first three months of the program.

“Since January (2012), the number of tickets issued monthly have ranged from 1,675 to 2,313,” Sloan said.

Haines City has 13 camera systems that monitor northbound and southbound traffic on U.S. 27 at five intersections: Davenport Boulevard, Bates Road, Polk City Road, Southern Dunes/Hammock Lake boulevards and West Commerce Avenue. Holly Hill/Massey Road at Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center has one camera for southbound traffic.

Another two cameras are on U.S. 17/92 in front of the Publix shopping center.

In early 2011, as the tickets began arriving at homes of drivers caught by the cameras, city and area residents filled City Commission chambers complaining about the tickets and how much they cost.

Figures on whether there has been a reduction in traffic accidents and fatalities along U.S. 27, where all but two cameras are located, were not available Wednesday.

Though the City Commission has always claimed that the red-light camera program was for public safety, it hasn’t hurt city coffers any.

In fact, the city relies on those funds to help balance its budget in the years of waning property taxes due to the decrease in property value.

City budget projections for red-light ticket revenue for the next budget year decreased by $70,000, from $1.87 million to $1.8 million, city figures show.

In his ruling, signed Aug. 17, Judge Coon upheld the public safety intent of the law by saying its purpose is to make roadways safer.

The judge also found that it was not a violation of equal protection to send a citation or notice of violation to the first named owner of a jointly owned vehicle because the law treats everyone the same.

In addition, the judge said, issuing citations to all the owners of a vehicle could clog the court system.

He said the state has an interest in making highways safer in a cost effective and efficient way that would not overwhelm the court system.

The judge also rejected the idea that the defendants claim owners fined under the photo-enforced system were treated differently than drivers who were cited by a law enforcement officer.

Again, Coon found that everyone is treated equally. It is when the ticket enters the court system that the costs increase.

“The Florida Supreme Court has found it to be constitutional for the traffic enforcement system to charge less to a person who pays a fine without challenging the citation than to one who uses the court system and challenges the violation,” the judge wrote. “Therefore there is no merit to this argument.”

Coon denied the defendants’ claim that to contest the citation would put an additional penalty on the vehicle’s owners including points on driver licenses and additional insurance costs, citing another Florida statue that prohibits both of those things when a citation is issued under the red-light camera law.

In a separate ruling on the legality of the city’s contract with ATS, Coon said the contract legal, saying there is no evidence of ATS receiving any compensation based on the number of tickets issued. He said the company is paid based on fixed costs of services.

American Traffic Systems is the Arizona-based company that owns and operate the camera system installed in Haines City, as well as in Lakeland and other cities around the state.

The city pays ATS $6,400 monthly to rent the cameras and pay the costs associated with reviewing the videotapes. Before tickets are issued, the tapes are reviewed by Police Department workers.

The judge also said the flexible payment plan the city has in its ATS contracts, allows for delayed compensation to ATS, thus keeping the cameras in place as revenues decline to protect the public from the danger of death or injury from red-light runners.

ATS lawyer Charles Territo said in an email Wednesday that courts around the state have had the same conclusions.

“These rulings are consistent with other from around the state. As judges and courts become more familiar with the technology, the number of challenges to the legislation have diminished,” he said. “Red-light safety cameras save lives. From courts in Polk County to Miami-Dade County and places in between, the message is clear, red-light safety cameras are constitutional.”

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August 23rd, 2012|