Supreme court eyes red-light camera reviews

By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Luis Torres Jimenez admits he made a right turn at a red light when he wasn’t supposed to, but he still wants his ticket quashed.

The fate of Jimenez’s 2011 citation -- issued after a red-light camera captured an image of his illegal turn -- now rests in the hands of the state’s highest court.

But several justices appeared skeptical Wednesday as Jimenez’s lawyers tried to persuade the court that the way the city of Aventura handles citations issued to motorists caught on camera is unlawful.

Jimenez’s lawyers 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.

A Miami judge threw out Jimenez’s ticket, but the 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned that decision and asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue.

Wednesday’s arguments in the case centered on the role that American Traffic Solutions, Inc. -- a major player in the industry -- has in handling red-light traffic violations.

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.

Up to 35 percent of the images are rejected, according to court documents. The rest are given to city traffic enforcement officials, who decide whether to issue citations or not.

Stephen Rosenthal, who represents Jimenez, told the court Wednesday that a state law, passed in 2010, allows third-party contractors to review the images, but only traffic enforcement officers can actually issue citations.

Rosenthal argued that Aventura’s system is unlawful because no city official “reviews” the images the vendor’s employees deem are not violations, meaning that the private company ultimately decides which drivers not to ticket. 

“The system the city has set up has created a situation where (all of the images) are not reviewed by an officer,” Rosenthal said. “Mr. Jimenez was subjected to unauthorized screening by the vendors.” 

But several justices appeared stymied by Rosenthal’s position.

“Is it a misery-loves-company argument?” Justice Charles Canady asked. “I’m struggling. If he violated the statute, I don’t see what he has to complain about because … other people who might have violated the statute don’t get dragged into the net.”

Justice Peggy Quince questioned whether traffic officers would have to scrutinize every photo. 

“You mean even in a situation where there was a clear, they were nowhere near the line when the camera went off, that that needs to be reviewed by an officer?” Quince asked.

The power to enforce the law involves making a “judgment call” about whether or not an infraction occurred, Rosenthal replied.

“They are conferring that power to a private vendor,” he said.

But Florida Solicitor General Amit Agarwal told the justices that the vendor’s employees “are engaged in only a clerical and essentially ministerial task” as allowed by the state law.

“They’re taking clear rules and applying them,” Agarwal said.

The case centers on the “police power” of the state, Agarwal argued.

“And that police power, as relevant here, is the power to issue a citation,” he said. “And it’s undisputed that only one person can make that determination of probable cause to believe that a violation has taken place … and that’s the police department.”

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.

In its July 2016 ruling, the 3rd District Court of Appeal found that Aventura’s program 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.

Red-light cameras have become a perennial issue for the Legislature.

In one of its first votes of the legislative session that began last month, the Florida House voted to eliminate the 2010 law allowing red-light cameras. The proposal now awaits action from the Senate, which in the past hasn’t been as supportive of overturning the law.

Shortly after the Jan. 12 House vote, Speaker Richard Corcoran said the use of red-light cameras needs to come to a halt due to “the failure and corruption” of the law.

“Having reviewed years of data … it is clear that red light cameras are more about revenue than public safety,” Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, said in a prepared statement.

News Service of Florida