Red-light cameras aren’t the bonanza cities expected

Jul 23, 2011

The following article was published in the Miami Herald on July 23, 2011:

Red-Light cameras aren’t the bonanza cities expected

By David Walter

The defendants stood before the hearing officer, traffic citations in hand, each accused of running a red light in Miami Gardens, as captured by one of the city’s 29 intersection cameras.

Within minutes, seven of the cases were dismissed, with the hearing officer ruling they had tripped the cameras while making a legal right turn on red.

The remaining three, who will now have to pay a $277 ticket, were sent off with a cheerful “Have a good day … and drive carefully.’’

While presumably those three violators weren’t happy with the outcome, neither are the municipalities in South Florida that expected the red-light cameras to rev up city revenues. The financial windfalls haven’t come, partially because of the costs involved in operating the red-light programs and also because they’ve proven surprisingly susceptible to court challenges.

This summer, officials in several cities have raised the possibility of ending the programs or renegotiating their contracts with the provider.

Twenty-six municipalities use red-light cameras across Miami-Dade and Broward counties. In the future, the cameras’ fate in these cities and towns will likely hinge on a question that has already proven easy to debate but might be hard to answer definitively: Are the safety benefits the cameras may deliver worth the cost to towns in money and resources?

Last July, when a state law gave cities explicit authority to operate the cameras, fines from the cameras were projected to bring in millions to cities at a time when the tough economic climate was drying up other revenue sources.

But cities aren’t getting the windfall they anticipated.

Miami, which has 63 cameras at its intersections, predicted $8 million in revenue from the cameras in its 2011 budget. As of June, the city has collected only $1 million.

Hollywood, with 18 cameras, originally projected $1.8 million in revenue but now expects closer to $500,000.

And of the money the programs do pull in, cities should expect to hang onto only a sliver.

Take Fort Lauderdale, for example. The city anticipated $3.2 million in revenue from its six cameras, but as of Thursday they had generated a little more than $1 million. Of that, nearly half goes back to the state as required under the 1-year-old law; the city will pay $300,000 to American Traffic Solutions, the company that installed and operates the cameras in Broward and Miami-Dade; and court and administrative costs to the city will take out another chunk, said city spokesman Mark Little.

Not every city has been disappointed. Last year, North Miami anticipated $369,080 in red-light-camera revenues and actually collected $977,159. This year, Aventura has already collected $787,007, more than what it expected for the entire year.

Even so, no city can claim a significant source of revenue from the cameras, which doesn’t surprise ATS’ spokesman Charles Territo.

“Over time, red-light safety cameras change driver behavior,” Territo said. “And that behavior leads to fewer violations, and fewer violations leads to less revenue.”

Focusing on revenues misses the point, Territo said.

“The role of enforcement is not to generate revenue for a city,” he said. Rather, the goal of camera enforcement is to save lives, and should be judged on those terms.

Still, even a city like Pembroke Pines, which did not factor camera revenues into its 2011 budget, is considering a new deal with ATS that would have the city pay nothing to the company until its cameras start operating in the black.

Pembroke Pines’ busiest camera, at eastbound Pines Boulevard at 129th Avenue, has generated 2,280 citations since last July 1. But another camera, located northbound on Southwest 136th Avenue at Pines Boulevard, has generated only four citations since that date.

Territo said his company is willing to negotiate flexible arrangements for other cities in the region to ease concerns about profitability.

Abandoning the cameras altogether is harder to do — as Hialeah has found out.

In June, the Hialeah City Commission voted 4-1 to end the program, which during the previous year brought in about $125,000.

“Our citizens made it very clear that they were opposed to those cameras,’’ said Mayor Carlos Hernandez. “They pretty much understood that it was a matter of revenue, not a matter of decreasing accidents.”

But the cameras aren’t being switched off yet. The city may have to negotiate a settlement with ATS in order to extract itself from the multiyear contract it signed with the company, which installs the cameras for free.

As Hialeah mulls its options, the two cameras in use at the time of the “no” vote will remain in operation, though several others that had been installed will not be switched on. And Hernandez will continue to rail against what he sees as unwarranted government intrusion.

“I don’t believe that those cameras are legal. And that is being shown in many courts right now,” he said.

While Miami-Dade courts have generally accepted camera practices, several Broward judges have seen fit to dismiss red-light tickets, questioning the very constitutionality of the program.

Most daunting for towns are the cases that are dismissed because defendants hire attorneys like Ted Hollander. His law group, the Ticket Clinic, has led the fight against red-light fines in Broward and Miami-Dade. It even offers a no-conviction money back guarantee.

Their tactics have been especially effective in Broward. In one Broward traffic court, out of 830 tickets challenged between July 2010 and May 2011, only 44 were upheld.

“The statute is so poorly written. There’s so much that’s unclear,’’ Hollander said. “We go to court and fight for hours and hours and hours.”

The Ticket Clinic also challenges the citations on constitutional grounds. In a June victory, Hollander persuaded a Broward judge to find the cameras violated the constitution’s equal-protection guarantee. He argued, somewhat counterintuitively, that it wasn’t fair that a red light ticket from a police officer leads to a $236 fine and points on a license, while a camera citation leads to a $158 fine and no points. Lawyers for the state are appealing the ruling.

Another constitutional issue raised is that owners whose cars were caught on camera zipping through a light while someone else was driving must somehow prove they weren’t the person behind the wheel. The burden of proof, lawyers maintain, should always be on the prosecution.

Hollander expects the various legal challenges to make their way through Florida’s higher courts in the next few months, in what he sees as a decisive period for the cameras’ future.

“These issues will go up on appeal,” he said, “and hopefully these cameras will be gone once and for all.”

Territo had an opposite prediction.

“As judges become more familiar with how these programs operate, there will be fewer and fewer dismissals,’’ he said.

And, he added, the majority of those who receive citations simply pay the ticket rather than fight it. That’s because the ticket comes with a photo of the car after it has entered the intersection against the red light. The recipient is invited to access a website where there is a video showing the transgression in progress.

Confronted with pictorial evidence — and cognizant of the fact that it costs $158 to pay by mail but $277 if you lose in court — most simply choose to pay by mail. Or at least they did in the beginning of the program.

But therein lies another constitutional issue. Lawyers argue that it is improperly coercive to penalize citizens for availing themselves of the courts.

A logistical problem with the cameras is that they are tripped whenever a car enters an intersection against the red light. The problem: It is legal for drivers to enter against the light — provided they stop first — when making a right turn. That means the tapes must be reviewed before mailing out the ticket, an additional burden on cities.

Now, it would appear, even those right-turn tickets that passed the initial smell test are being routinely dismissed in court.

One Broward judge has caused further headaches for municipalities by insisting that they send a legal representative to red-light ticket hearings. That ups the cost for the cities, but if they fail to do so, the ticket is tossed out.

For all the aggravation that the citations cause, and for all their difficulties in the courts, there’s some indication that the cameras are at least working to change accident statistics for the better.

In Hialeah, which voted to end the camera program, traffic fatalities decreased 17 percent from 2009 to 2010, when the city began the camera program.

Aventura reported a 60 percent decrease in accidents at one of its most dangerous intersections — at Northeast 199th Street and Biscayne Boulevard — under its own camera program. In North Miami, traffic accidents fell by 60 percent at red-light camera intersections in 2010, the year they were installed.

But camera opponents don’t think there’s any correlation between the red-light cameras and safety records.

“There’s no evidence that these cameras do anything to stop accidents,” Hollander said.

Territo of ATS accused critics like Hollander of distorting a public-safety issue to suit their own needs.

“People who get tickets more often than not frame themselves as victims,” he said. “The real victims are those who are injured or lose loved ones.”