Fighting Florida’s Red Light Cameras: Winning the Battle, Chasing the War

May 15, 2015 could have been a monumental day for the city of Sarasota.  It could have been the day that Sarasota’s citizens established as unconstitutional the red light cameras which govern them from above.  We could have reclaimed the freedoms taken from us by the predatory and improper contracting for the purpose issuing red light “notices” by a private company and the City of Sarasota.  In fact, that cause for celebration by us, Sarasota’s citizens, was mere minutes away.  Instead, May 15 will go down as the day that one individual had his red light camera ticket dismissed by the City of Sarasota.

It generally starts for many of us in Sarasota by opening an envelope addressed in our name, sent by the city of Sarasota.  Upon opening the envelope, we see that, at some point in time on any given day, a camera caught an image of us running a red light.  We might not remember the incident, or even running a red light, but this piece of mail seems pretty incriminating and demands that we pay $158.00, or else.  Also, this piece of mail looks an awful lot like a ticket.  After all, the paper is titled “Notice of Violation”, identifies which statute has been violated, specifies the statutory penalty to be paid, and seems to be issued by the City of Sarasota.  So it’s a ticket, right?

Wrong.  This Notice of Violation is actually just that: a notice.  It is not a uniform traffic citation (legalese, and fancy, for “ticket”), and does not become one until you fail to pay the $158.00 within 60 days.  Follow yet?  The city is notifying you that you have broken a law, but will not actually receive a citation as long as you pay according to this notice.  In a nutshell, we’re being told “hey, I noticed you ran that light back there.  Tell you what, if you pay me, I dunno, say 158 bucks, I can make this all go away.”  But what if I don’t feel like being extorted today?  The city’s answer to that seems straight out of a movie: “Well, if you don’t pay, you’re in real trouble.”  Essentially, failure to pay pursuant to this friendly Notice of Violation results in higher fines and fees, an adjudication of guilt pursuant to Florida Statute Section 316.0083 and/or 316.074, and points on your driving record.  Oh, and while the Notice of Violation is on City of Sarasota letterhead, it is actually sent to you by a private company in Tempe, Arizona.  No, I’m not making this up.

There is a third option, besides paying 158 bucks in hush money or facing prosecution.  All one needs to do for option umber three is furnish an affidavit to the city, stating that they were not the actual driver of the vehicle on the date of incident.  This affidavit also needs to state the name of the actual offending driver, along with their address, date of birth, and driver license number (if you just so happen to have it).  At that point in time, the city will be happy to forward your Notice of Violation along to this person who you have just offered as sacrifice.  The sad truth is that the this third option, and the second option of facing prosecution along with increased fines and insurance costs, are such terrible alternatives that the vast majority of us just decide to take the path of least resistance and pay our hush money.

Fortunately for the majority of us, a few fellow Sarasotans have grown frustrated with the prevalence of these red light camera “notices” and have decided to challenge their validity.  The basis for their challenge, in its simplest form, is that the city has illegally contracted with a private vendor to police our roadways and citizens.  In fact, the use of these red light cameras from third party vendor ATS has been expressly preempted by state law.  Article VIII, section 2(b), Florida Constitution, specifically recognizes the power of municipalities “to conduct municipal government, perform municipal functions and render municipal services,” and it specifically recognizes that municipalities “may exercise any power for municipal purposes except as otherwise provided by law.”  Without turning this into a legal brief, the real problem is that Sarasota’s “Red Light Camera” ordinance establishes a mechanism for the process and punishment of red light violations that is distinctly different from the State’s statutorily prescribed process for violations of the same nature.  At the core of it all, Sarasota is wrongly allowing (and handsomely paying for) ATS to determine and issue violations of traffic law to our citizens.

This argument was put to the test just last week, on May 15, when our client challenged the validity of his red light camera notice.  As it would unfold, the prosecution consisted of the State Attorney General, the State’s Red Light Ticket Attorney (who knew we even had one), and Sarasota’s city attorney.  When over two hundred million dollars is on the line (yes, $200,000,000.00) no stable of attorneys is too much.  After extensive argument by both the prosecution and myself during the first hour of our hearing, the impending result began to become clear.  The prosecution, sensing a ruling that would effectively remove red light cameras from the city of Sarasota to be mere seconds away, conceded defeat and stated their desire to dismiss the charges against my client.  Accordingly, the court entered dismissal of the charges, and that ended the red light camera saga of our client.  Unfortunately, since our state and city counsels decided to take their ball and go home when faced with impending defeat, the issue of Sarasota’s red light cameras has yet to be solved, or even fully addressed.  The effect of the state’s dismissal is not wide-reaching, and still leaves us without a binding decision on the issue that removes these intrusive and unconstitutional red light cameras from our beautiful city.

(1) A class action lawsuit has been filed for the recoupment of the exorbitant amount of Notice of Violation fees collected by the State recently.