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Another point of view on Senator Brandes’ red-light camera reforms

By on May 9, 2013
red light cameras2

The following is a very thorough guest post by Matt Florell of St. Pete Polls.

On May 2nd at 2:42 PM this tweet by @ChrisSpencerFL appeared on my Twitter feed and it caught my attention, “Highway Safety Package including red light camera fixes by @JeffreyBrandes and @JakeRaburn passes FL leg, goes to Governor #sayfie”. I immediately went online and searched for the bill and found HB 7125

I read the most recent version of the bill text, which was called “Engrossed 1″ at that time, and I liked what I saw. This bill had a provision that prevented all right turn on red violations from being issued by red light camera enforcement. If you take the time to look at the statistics you’ll see that right turn on red enforcement has nothing to do with safety. Collier County banned right turn citations after two years of their red light camera program because as their Sheriff stated, it resulted in “no proven safety benefit”.

I emailed some friends around the state that are against red light cameras and the consensus was that this was a great bill. Then later that day, one of my friends from North Florida noticed that a new “Engrossed 2″ version of the bill had just been posted and it didn’t have the same changes as the previous version. In fact, it had a whole different set of red light camera changes taken from some of the dozens of previously filed amendments that were put together and debated only in the Senate just two days before, and most of them were not good changes.

Then we noticed that only hours after the bill passed both houses, almost too quickly, ATS(American Traffic Solutions) the largest red light camera vendor in the state of Florida put out this press release applauding the passage of HB 7125 and the Brandes amendment that “enhances the state’s red-light safety camera program”. Here is a good place to note that at one point ATS had over a dozen paid lobbyists in Florida and has paid out over $2 million for lobbying in Florida in the last several years. They have also created and funded fake grassroots organizations to push their agenda.

Here is a list of most of the provisions related to red light cameras that are in HB 7125. Line references below are from the 226 page “Enrolled” version of the bill. I have left out the mostly administrative changes and instead focused only on the major changes. But first, some terminology. A “Notice of Violation” is the mailed notice for running a red light, the legal equal of a parking ticket, which is a non-moving violation that does not cause injury or death. Most traffic violations such as red light violations were made civil non-criminal infractions decades ago. They on face value don’t have constitutional protections such as the presumption of innocence or the ability to confront witnesses, but they do carry the same beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof for conviction as do criminal cases. Even traffic infractions such as speeding have requirements built in to safeguard the motorists of Florida. These include certification and regulation of law enforcement equipment like radar guns, which must be certified by a third party every 6 months. The red light camera law specifically transfers this burden of proof from the government to the vehicle owner. It also automatically withholds points and bans auto insurance increases, which is illogical for a hazardous moving violation issued for safety concerns- something nearly every local official has claimed is the sole purpose of the devices. A “Uniform Traffic Citation” is what the notice of violation becomes if you don’t pay it right away, and it is then handed over to the county court system to process at a higher fee.

1. Starting at line 501
“Local Hearing Officers”, this provision allows municipalities to have city employees or city designated persons act effectively as a judge for red light camera notice of violation appeals. This could be similar to how codes enforcement appeals work, or it could allow outsourcing of the hearings to county courts, but there are very few guidelines in the bill on how these hearings would run. As written, these hearing officers are not required to have any legal training to perform the task of judge. For example, a city meter reader could be a hearing officer. Prior to the Wandall Act going into effect in July 2010, this was how most cities had handled red light camera tickets, and it proved to be a very inconsistent and unfair process that lead to lawsuits around the state which the cities lost.

2. Starting at line 523
“no ticket if stopping after the line”, this is effectively a meaningless provision that was no doubt added to give the impression that it was a positive change. The truth is that most installed red light camera equipment in Florida is incapable of ticketing people going less than 10mph. I have never seen an example in this state of a red light camera ticket for a person that stops just after the stop line, and I have seen a lot of citations from Florida.

3. Starting at line 542
“60 days to appeal”, this one line change moves the appeal date from 30 to 60 days from notification. This change would have more meaning if the definition of “notification” was not changed a few lines later.

4. Starting at line 546
“mailing constitutes notification”, in this one line, the meaning of the word “notification” is changed from when you actually receive the citation to the date that the for-profit red light camera vendor mails you the citation. This means that if ATS mails a citation to you from Arizona on Monday, your 60 days to appeal starts from that day, not on Friday when you actually receive the citation in the mail. Also, if your citation is lost in the mail, that doesn’t matter, you are still on the hook for the ticket even though you have no idea you had already been “notified”. As a result, you may be fined hundreds of dollars and possibly have your license suspended through no fault of your own.

5. Starting at lines 723 and 737
“affidavit notifications”, possibly the only really good part of the bill, this allows the person receiving the affidavit to pay the lower $158 notification fee instead of a the higher $264 uniform traffic citation fee under the current law.

6. Starting at line 754
“procedures for notification appeal hearing”, this section goes over the rules for the notification appeal hearings. Here is where formal rules of evidence are thrown out. This means that in the notification appeal hearing you are not allowed to question the chain of evidence, the accuracy of the camera equipment, the timing of the light signaling or any other evidence-based testimony that might help your case. This is also where the hearing officer is allowed to assign an extra $250 fee for simply appealing the notification of violation. This means that the total fine for losing a notification appeal hearing can be higher than the current total fine for appealing a citation in a real traffic court. While the extra fees are only supposed to cover the actual appeal hearing costs, there is are no audit or oversight processes put in place for this.

7. Starting at line 824
“withholding of license plate renewal”, this new section states that you won’t be able to renew your license plate registration if you don’t pay the notification. This is a new and severe penalty for non-payment of a civil violation. Another problem with this new punishment is that unlike a drivers license suspension, it affects all vehicles that are owned or co-owned by the accused. This means entire families or entire business fleets could be grounded by a single ticket that has gone unpaid or was wrongly issued.

In summary, you would be able to appeal notices of violation at the city level, but the trial will not be overseen by an impartial judge, you will have less tools to fight the ticket, you will have less of a chance of winning, and if you lose it could cost you more than appealing a citation in front of a real judge that will allow you to have full legal trial rights. If you do appeal at the city level you might have to pay as much as $408, and if you don’t pay that fast enough you won’t be able to renew any of your vehicles’ registrations. All of these will be the new penalties for the civil infraction that is a red light camera violation.

So why don’t we trust municipalities to act as impartial judges and do the right thing with their new red light camera courts? Because cities like St. Petersburg, Oldsmar, Bradenton and several others around the state have proven they can’t be trusted to not abuse red light cameras for profit by just setting their yellow signals too short. In Oldsmar and St. Petersburg alone almost $500,000 in citations were issued to people who only ran the red light because the yellow was too short, and both cities have refused to issue any refunds even though the violations were caused by their own signaling problems. These cities were proven to be in the wrong and they still refused to do the right thing and refund these faulty citations, why should we trust them to run a fair court system with no independent oversight?

What is missing from this red light camera reform bill is a provision to remove the assumption of guilt of the accused. There have been dozens of news articles in Florida of people that were sent tickets with misread license plate numbers, or even people who were next to people that ran red lights but were ticketed themselves, people who received tickets for going through a green light and even people being ticketed for running a red light as part of a police escorted funeral procession. The law still assumes all accused are guilty and must prove their innocence. In some cases having to drive hundreds of miles and risk hundreds of dollars in additional fines to do so, an unfair burden especially for the poor. Our country was founded on the principal of innocent until proven guilty, and the strengthening of this law that assumes the opposite is a step in the wrong direction.

Also missing is a provision to force municipalities to use minimum safe yellow signal times. Several municipalities in Florida have been caught with short yellow signal times, and the result in every case has been higher numbers of red light camera citations and no refunds for those caught in the unsafe trap set by the municipalities. Those municipalities have been proven guilty of this, but have never faced any penalties for their offenses. According to the red light camera law, local governments can do no wrong and require almost no oversight.

So that is all of the disturbing stuff about the bill, but what is also disturbing is how this bill got passed with only one legislator voting against it on the last full day of the regular legislative session this year. As I mentioned above, Senator Brandes’ new red light camera provisions were only discussed and debated in the Senate, then they were sent to the House early in the morning on the last full day the legislature was in regular session this year. On the last full day of session, the bills are voted on rapidly, one after the other, to try to get through them all before business has to be concluded for the day. This “Engrossed 2″ version of the HB 7125 was not even available for viewing on the state’s website until hours after it had already been voted on and approved by both houses, only the amendments were listed individually, and those amendments were only a handful out of the dozens that were associated with the bill. There were no House committee hearings on these provisions, and the general public had no opportunity to view exactly what was being voted on in the House ahead of time. 

When speaking off the record to a member of the Florida House, the Representative said this bill was described as a standard omnibus transportation bill with some red light camera reform elements to it. When this representative finally found out what they had really voted on, they became livid at how the bill had been misrepresented and how they had been tricked into voting for it based upon an inaccurate description and a very different older version of the bill that had already been approved by the House the week before. This isn’t the way laws should be passed in our state Legislature.

I sent a message to Jeff Brandes on Facebook on the morning of Saturday, May 4th asking about the red light camera changes in HB 7125, and this is the response I received, “All we did was give you 60 days to pay the notice of violation before it becomes a UTC and add due process rights for the notice. We also changed the right on red to say that as long as you stop, even if is beyond the white bar you will not receive a ticket.”

I sent him a few replies over the next couple days explaining that they did a lot more than that, and I outlined the other changes that his amendment made. I asked him what the reasons were for adding these other provisions, but as of Monday night I had still not heard back from him. I read in a Fox13 TV Tampa Bay article that he would be releasing a statement on this soon.

Then, on Tuesday morning I received a phone call from Senator Brandes’ chief of staff asking if I could meet with the Senator in 45 minutes at his office. By this time, I had already spoken to half a dozen reporters about HB 7125 and there were several news pieces about the bill running on local TV, newspapers and radio.

I arrived at his office on 4th St. N. in St. Petersburg and went into the conference room with the Senator and his chief of staff and started to go over all of the questions I had about the bill and why Brandes had pushed it through the way he did. I’m not going to try to cover every question in detail, but here were the main points.

My first question was about why the banning right turn on red provision that had passed the House in the same bill the week before was removed. This was because that provision carried with it a $28 million hit to the budget, and the budget had already been approved in the Senate and House without that part in it. So even though the House wanted to remove the ineffective targeting of right turn violations, it would remove too much money from the state’s budget. The reason that the “no ticket if stopping after the line” exclusion provision that was included in this bill was allowed to stay in was because it carried no financial hit. In other words, it never happens, as I detailed in part one of this article.

I next asked about the local municipal hearings. Brandes stressed that this allows communities to get together and contract with the county and pay the county courts to handle the notification appeals. He also said that most municipalities should be assigning fees of $40-$50. I asked why the limit in the bill was five times that high, at $250 and Brandes replied that they had to set the limit somewhere and that some people had asked for a $1000 limit. I think the fee is set much too high to prevent abuse by municipalities, and while it would be nice to think that the county courts would handle the notification appeals, there are no incentives for municipalities to give up the revenues from running their own appeal hearings and being able to control the process so that they can deny appeals at a higher rate, meaning that they would keep more of the red light camera money.

Denial of vehicle registration renewal was the next topic. Brandes said he hates suspending drivers licenses, and since there had to be a penalty for non-payment of notification of violation appeals fees the only option left was to prevent renewal of registrations.

On the provision that removes the rules of evidence from the notification appeals, he said that was done to keep the hearing costs down.

I mentioned the problem with the accused being considered guilty until they are proven innocent, and he said that is allowed under civil violations, and that red light camera violations would have to be turned into Uniform Traffic Citations in order to change them to a presumption of innocence, and that could only be done with a much more complex bill that completely overhauls the existing red light camera laws. He said that is unlikely to happen in the current environment in Tallahassee, and had no chance of being done this session.

I asked about why minimum yellow signal times couldn’t be included in the bill. Brandes said due to the rules of the Senate and the fact that those provisions were in another bill that failed to clear committees, he couldn’t add it to this bill.

When asked why this amendment was sent back to the House on the last full day of session with no time for debate, he responded that that is sometimes the only way to get things like this passed in the Legislature.

We discussed other elements of the bill as well, and went over the abuse of red light camera programs by cities that have short yellow signals, and some other related and unrelated topics.

One of the topics we talked about was the current lobbying power of groups in favor of red light cameras in the state. ATS(American Traffic Solutions) has people working in Tallahassee whose only job is to ensure red light cameras stay legal and profitable in Florida. The Florida League of Cities also lobbies in favor of red light cameras as one of the few newer sources of revenue allowed to cities. Those together with the other groups that work to the same goals, there is a virtual flood of lobbyists and money bombarding the members of the Legislature while they are in session. He said that on the other side there are only a few citizens and a lone lobbyist that he has talked to about red light cameras. That lone lobbyist is Paul Henry, a retired Florida State Trooper and traffic crash investigator who frequently talks to legislators in Tallahassee and testifies before committees about red light cameras and other issues.

Brandes said that his goals with the bill were to allow appeals at the notification level, extend the notification time period to 60 days, and fix the affidavit problem that raises the cost of the fine if the registered owner isn’t the driver. This bill clearly succeeds at those goals, but I think that the additional powers given to municipalities with very little oversight is ripe for abuse, just like municipalities are currently abusing their red light camera systems. 

The high appeal fees, removal of the rules of evidence and use of potentially biased hearing officers makes this new notification appeals process a bad option for just about anyone wanting to appeal their red light camera ticket. Compared to the traffic court proceedings that I have witnessed, the people appealing in a notification hearing could very well end up with higher costs and a higher likelihood of their appeal being rejected. His response to this is that anyone who thinks the process wasn’t done fairly can appeal or sue. But after recently hearing about the hundreds of lawsuits the city of St. Petersburg is currently involved in, and the resources that they are willing to commit to even small cases to ensure that they don’t lose a single one, that would only be a viable option for someone that has a lot of money and years of their life that they are willing to commit to the process.

After I had spent almost 90 minutes talking to Senator Brandes, I had a better understanding of how things work in Tallahassee, and the reasons why he did what he did. I don’t agree with several of the points he made, and I think the bill’s provisions will end up hurting more people than they will help, mostly due to unchecked abuse from municipalities. But I really do appreciate his taking time to talk to me about my concerns, and especially his offer to have more discussions with me as he works on this topic in the future.

I understand that given the current environment in Tallahassee, red light cameras laws aren’t going to be significantly changed at the state level anytime soon, and that hopefully new laws will at least be able to stop the abuses by municipalities of these programs in the near future.

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