Thousands of drivers ticketed under Hallandale Beach’s controversial red light camera program are eligible to receive small refunds as part of a lawsuit settlement that lets the city keep most of the $1.2 million in disputed fines it collected.
At a minimum, the city gets to keep nearly $800,000 million in fine money. Ticketed drivers – an estimated 9,000 of them – who have alleged the city wrongly collected that money could see $20-$25 each.
The deal also calls for City Hall to keep ticket money that goes unclaimed. That should be about $150,000 if only 25 percent of drivers want their money back, according to one expert who predicts most will not seek a refund.
“It is municipal thinking: Give back as little as possible and make it as difficult as possible (to collect a refund), and play the odds and come out ahead,” said George Knox, a law professor at Florida International University who is also a former Miami City Attorney. Most eligible for refunds won’t file the paperwork because “they will feel that their time is worth more than $20.”
Those who got tickets paid a $125 penalty for each citation. Drivers eligible under the settlement were issued traffic cam tickets since the start of the program in 2008 to June 30, 2010.
The $800,000+ is a windfall for the city. The money has been sitting in an escrow account for several years.
The city commission approved the settlement on Wednesday, Nov. 2. It must still be approved by a judge.
Meanwhile, the red light program continues even though here has been a steady decline in citations issued.
The settlement has stirred another round of debate over the cities reason for creating the program — whether it was meant to put money in city coffers or to improve traffic safety.
“It’s was all about the money,” said Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Keith London, who has opposed the program since the start.
Mayor Joy Cooper disagrees.
“It’s always been about the safety issue,” said Cooper, a proponent of the camera program. “I’ve championed this. The goal was not money.”
TICKETED DRIVER FILED SUIT
The settlement stems from a lawsuit filed in Broward Circuit Court by motorist Moriama Ramon, who challenged the city ordinance that established the program. The city’s contractor who installed and maintained the program, American Traffic Solutions, was also named as a defendant in the suit.
Ramon argued that Hallandale Beach did not have proper authority under state law to cite drivers prior to July 2010, when Florida law officially granted municipalities permission to fine drivers through the use of red light cameras.
Both parties said continuing to litigate the case would cost too much. The city admitted no liability in deciding to settle the court complaint.
Under the settlement the city and American Traffic Solutions agreed to create a $375,666 pool of money to pay off the cited drivers and the plaintiff’s legal bills. Hallandale Beach will pay $332,445 into settlement pool; ATS will pay $43,221.
An attorney representing the city said the fund for driver paybacks could drop to about $200,000, or about $20 for each individual ticket refund. Michael Popok, outside counsel for the city in the matter, said refund notices to eligible drivers could go out in early February.
When Hallandale Beach enacted its “Traffic Intersection Safety Act” in 2008 the city predicted it would “make $1 million to $2 million” annually, London said. But it “was a gotcha,” he added.
“We did something we were not allowed to do,” London said.
Commissioner Alexander Lewy and Mayor Cooper insisted the program has made traffic in the city safer.
To make the case, Lewy cited a sharp drop in citations issued this year: from 7,300 red light tickets during the first three months of 2010 to 571 during that same period this year.
“It shows a change in driver behavior,” Lewy said.