Red light ticket? Enforcement depends on where you got it and how you try to resolve it

By Susannah Nesmith, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Traffic Magistrate Christopher Benjamin played a series of dramatic videos of crashes caught on tape by red-light cameras. The people in the audience gasped each time someone t-boned a car, flipped over a railing, struck a motorcyclist or nearly plowed through a line of kids crossing the street.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise,” Benjamin told the audience after playing the videos. And then he surprised everyone. “Be safe out there. Case dismissed. Thank you.”

Three times that recent afternoon, groups of 20 or more filed into the courtroom, only to learn one of the quirks in the uneven enforcement of the state’s red-light camera tickets. Hundreds of tickets issued by Florida City for running red lights have been dismissed in recent months after drivers failed to pay them. That’s because the small town at the southern reaches of the county simply wasn’t sending an officer the 50 miles to court in Miami.

The way the state’s red-light camera statute is enforced varies depending on which city or county someone is ticketed in, and how the ticketed person tries to resolve the ticket. Different cities have different definitions of what constitutes a violation, and the hearing officers hired by cities are, at least in one case, interpreting the statute differently from the traffic magistrates hired by the court system.

Broward cities aren’t currently using red-light cameras pending the outcome of high-profile litigation.

While the differing enforcement may turn out to be a key issue for the Florida Supreme Court, which agreed in mid-May to take a case challenging the cameras, two things remain constant across the state. Like modern-day small town speed traps, the cameras raise significant revenues for cities and the state, and the tickets cause thousands of car owners statewide to have their licenses suspended every year. Approximately 40 percent of those suspensions happen to Miami-Dade drivers, according to records compiled by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

On a recent afternoon in traffic court, Magistrate Alex Labora suspended the licenses of 12 drivers who didn’t pay $158 when they initially received a notice of violation from the city of Miami, didn’t request an administrative hearing at Miami City Hall and then didn’t show up in court once the violation was converted into what’s called a Uniform Traffic Citation. The magistrates routinely do the same thing day after day for citations issued by Miami Gardens, Homestead and a dozen other cities in Miami-Dade that issue the tickets.

Many people say they learn of the tickets only when they discover that their licenses have been suspended.

A security guard’s story

Thaddeus Hughes, a 26-year-old security guard from Florida City, said he had unwittingly driven around for several months with a suspended license before he bought a new car and tried to register it. His original $158 ticket ballooned to $410 with fees, by that point.

But because his ticket was issued by Florida City, it was tossed that day in court.

“I would have paid the $158 if I had known about it,” he said. He paid $60 to get his license reinstated.

Traffic Magistrate Christopher Benjamin

Magistrate Benjamin says he often sees people in his courtroom who say they didn’t know they had been ticketed until they learned their license was suspended. Benjamin said he became concerned that cities were not sending out the notices properly.

“I started really inquiring of people and there was always a reason why they didn’t get the notice,” he said.

What he found was that many drivers hadn’t changed the address on their car registration when they moved, even if they changed the address on their driver’s license. The violation notice goes to the address where the car is registered, whereas the suspension notice goes to the address on file for the owner’s driver’s license.

“Red-light cameras are the number one problem for my clients,” said Jackie Woodward, a ticket attorney in Miami. “I got one myself. I ran my name in the system, that’s how I found out. And I’m a ticket attorney.”

Statewide, 1.2 million people were issued red-light camera violation notices last year, according to a report by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. By the end of the year, 383,000 of them were listed as unpaid. If the violation notices go unpaid, they become traffic citations, which don’t carry any points but do show up on a driver’s record. In Miami-Dade, 200,000 violation notices went unpaid last year and were converted to citations, according to court records.

‘Cutting into my rent money’

Prince Fields, a 33-year-old unemployed driver, tried to resolve his violation before it turned into a citation. He requested a hearing in Miami Gardens to plead poverty because he was having trouble finding the money to pay the $158. Dawn Grace-Jones, an attorney hired by the city as a special master to conduct the hearings at city hall, said that poverty wasn’t a defense for running a red light and levied an additional $150 as an administrative fine for a total of $308.

Traffic Magistrate Dawn Grace-Jones

“I can’t afford this,” he said after the hearing. “It’s cutting into my rent money. They’re just raping the residents of this city.”

What he didn’t know was that the total fine he would have paid had he simply ignored the ticket until it became a traffic citation was only $277, and a traffic magistrate at the courthouse could have given him 90 days to pay, instead of the 30 days Miami Gardens gives. The county clerk’s office also offers an extended payment plan, something Miami Gardens doesn’t.

Plus, the magistrates in county traffic court often try to work with people who say they’re going to have trouble paying the fine.

“All day, I’m trying not to suspend licenses here,” said Magistrate Tom Cobitz. “Because I have to drive on these streets too.”

He noted that drivers with suspended licenses can have insurance problems. While insurance companies don’t generally cancel coverage, they can refuse to cover an accident involving someone driving on a suspended license.

Fields also didn’t know that Miami Gardens is considered one of the strictest cities in the county for red- light camera enforcement. It’s the only city that still issues violations for making a right turn on red at camera intersections, according to traffic magistrates and court personnel. A traffic magistrate might have treated his ticket very differently than the special master hired by Miami Gardens.

“I tell Miami Gardens all the time, ‘y’all are lucky I’m on the bench because if I weren’t, I would represent a ton of people against you,” said Magistrate Benjamin, an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad College of Law and a resident of Miami Gardens. “I remember one time, we were dismissing so many of their right hand turn tickets their assistant city attorney came in to see what was going on.”

Miami Gardens still right turn trap?

The camera statute says a ticket “may not” be issued if the driver made a right turn on red that was “careful and prudent.” When the Legislature added that language to the statute in 2013, most cities stopped issuing red light camera tickets for right turns. The city of Aventura responded to the law change by putting up no right turn on red signs at the intersections that have red-light cameras, making the turns illegal and the tickets enforceable.

Miami Gardens City Hall

Miami Gardens took a different view of the statute, which also says drivers must come to a full stop.

“The city’s argument is you did not come to a complete stop,” Grace-Jones repeatedly told drivers during the hearing in Miami Gardens City Hall. “The statute must all be read together.”

City officials in Miami Gardens stood by that interpretation of the law, even after being told that the magistrates in county traffic court don’t agree and no other city in the county is using that interpretation.

“The City of Miami Gardens follows the state statute as it relates to right turns on red,” city spokeswoman Petula Burks said in an email. “Motorists must come to a complete stop before making the right turn on red.”

In fact, Miami Gardens has a stricter interpretation of the statute when it comes to other scenarios. On the day when Fields attended the hearing at city hall, another man came in with proof that his tag was not on the vehicle he owned, a trailer, when it went through the light. The video clearly showed the tag on a car. Grace-Jones ruled that was not a valid defense and levied a fine. In traffic court in front of Magistrate Alex Labora, Miami police moved to dismiss an almost identical case the week before.

Grace-Jones also upheld a ticket when a woman came to City Hall with her very young infant and said she received the ticket because she had gone into labor at McDonalds and was rushing to the hospital. Magistrate Benjamin said he probably would have tossed a ticket like that.

The Gardens’ strict enforcement is costly for drivers – and it’s profitable for the city.

Miami Gardens raised $3.2 million in revenue from the cameras last year, Burks said. The city’s budget for this year noted that revenues had improved over the previous year because of the hearings conducted by the special master.

‘Safety not profit’

Burks said the city’s red light cameras are strictly enforced out of a concern for safety, not profit.

“One of the main purposes for the use of cameras is safety,” she said in an emailed statement. “There is a general belief that if motorists are aware of the cameras that they will change their driving behavior, i.e. stopping at red lights, yielding for pedestrians, etc.”

One of the issues the Florida Supreme Court will hear about when it tests the legality of the cameras is whether the law is being enforced in a uniform manner.

Attorney Stephen F. Rosenthal

Miami attorney Stephen F. Rosenthal, who will argue before the Supreme Court that the tickets are not legal, said the whole point of having a uniform traffic code is to make sure the rules of the road don’t change from one intersection to the next.

“The Legislature enacted this law to get rid of the different rules across the state,” he said, referring to the red-light camera law. “If the cities are going to do it and charge people very significant fines, they darn well better do it according to the law.”

The private companies that operate the cameras have the cities fill out business rules questionnaires, which include options for what type of behavior they want the contractor to flag in videos: Should drivers who stopped after they crossed the white line but before they entered the intersection be flagged for review by an officer, for example? The questionnaires also ask how the cities want to handle right turns. Each tweak can change what cities are actually enforcing, and how much money they’re making.

For the moment, Broward cities aren’t using the cameras because an appellate court ruled the tickets aren’t legal because the cities outsource the initial review of the tapes to a private company instead of having certified law enforcement separate the potential violations from videos of lawful driving. The appellate court that covers Miami-Dade, on the other hand, ruled that the contractor, who gets a cut of the ticket revenues, is only performing an administrative function and the tickets are legal because a certified law enforcement agency reviews the tapes to determine if an actual ticket should be issued. A Supreme Court decision might resolve the conflict between the two jurisdictions.

The city of Miami’s red-light camera program made the most of any city in the state last year, bringing in $5.1 million, city records show. Over the past two years, the city has issued more than 350,000 tickets. Miami also sent another $9.6 million to the state from the camera revenues, according to records from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Overall, the state collected $60 million last year from the camera tickets.

Even Florida City made significant money on the cameras last year, $850,000, according to Finance Director Mark Ben-Asher. That’s because, even though traffic magistrates were tossing the city’s tickets if they made it all the way to traffic court, many people paid them as soon as they got the notice of violation, or after going to an administrative hearing at city hall.

Meanwhile, Florida City police say drivers should not expect their tickets to be thrown out in the future because an officer doesn’t show up in court. Corporal Ken Armenteros said officers stopped attending the hearings more than a year ago to wait for a ruling from the Third District Court of Appeals on whether the tickets were legal. That ruling came down in July 2016. After that, the city had a problem with the way subpoenas were being issued to officers.

“We got them to fix that. We will resume regular operations next week,” he said in late May.

On May 31, an officer from Florida City did not show up in court for the morning hearings and all the cases were dismissed. An officer was on hand for the afternoon hearings, but he requested all the cases be dismissed.

 

 

Customers accuse Broward flying machine maker of fraud; Attorney General investigating

By: Ann Henson Feltgen, Browardbulldog.org 

A marketing photo for JetLev's Acquaflyer

A marketing photo for JetLev’s Acquaflyer

A Dania Beach firm that sells James Bond-style jetpacks is being sued for fraud by a California watersports company that alleges it lost more than $1 million because equipment it paid for was never delivered and contracts it was counting on were not honored.

Dean O’Malley, president of Newport Beach-based Jetpack America, filed the eight-count complaint against JetLev, a designer and manufacturer of water recreational systems. O’Malley’s firm distributed JetLev products.

O’Malley is not alone in his complaints. The Florida Attorney General’s office is investigating four complaints brought by unhappy customers against JetLev and Matt Rosenblatt, an Aventura resident described in the lawsuit as the company’s chief executive officer.

In addition, BrowardBulldog.org has identified nine other customers – individuals and companies – who accuse JetLev of bilking them. Those customers are from Arizona, California, New York, Texas, Washington, Australia, Canada and the Bahamas.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 5 in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, Ca., alleges fraud, breach of contract, misrepresentation, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, conversion and negligence.

The defendants are JetLev, several affiliated companies, Rosenblatt and Seth Gerszberg, a New York-based financier who took control of JetLev in 2013.

While JetLev’s website is still up and the company remains listed as active in Florida’s corporate records, JetLev’s phone numbers no longer work.

JetLev Chief Executive Matt Rosenblatt, interviewed by CNBC in August 2013.

JetLev Chief Executive Matt Rosenblatt, interviewed by CNBC in August 2013.

In an interview, Rosenblatt denied any wrongdoing, noting he never even got a paycheck from JetLev.

“I have never taken a penny out of JetLev,” said Rosenblatt, adding that he is no longer with the company, but believed it would soon file for bankruptcy. Customers, however, said he remains involved.

Neither Gerszberg or his New York City attorney, Gregg Donnenfeld, responded to numerous requests for comment by phone and email.

JetLev customers, including Jetpack America, say problems began last year after they made down payments on products but never received the equipment or a refund. Victims and former company insiders interviewed for this story say total losses by all customers range from $600,000 to more than $3 million.

THE COMPANY’S BEGINNINGS

Raymond Li, a Canadian inventor, founded JetLev. In 2011, the company introduced its first product – a water-propelled jetpack that allows thrill-seekers to soar up to 30 feet above the water. The devices use a floating pump that forces water up a hose to an apparatus worn by the user. The apparatus expels the water at high velocity, generating lift, according to the lawsuit.

The initial price tag was $100,000, a drawback to all but the wealthy, according to watersports publications and an Associated Press story.

Li went on to develop and patent two lower priced jetpacks – the Aquaflyer and Aquaboard – that retailed for about $10,000 each. The price drop led to an increase in demand.

But by late 2011, Li faced financial problems and Gerszberg became an investor, the lawsuit says.

Gerszberg became co-owner with Li and incorporated JetLev, LLC in Delaware in December 2011, according to corporate records. JetLev replaced Li’s company, JetLev Technologies Inc. In exchange, Gerszberg provided financial backing for the company.

In July 2013, Li assigned his patents to one of Gerszberg’s companies, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Within a year, Li left the company and returned to Canada. Around the same time, Gerszberg brought in his friend Rosenblatt to run the company.

Li could not be reached for comment. However, former JetLev employees said Li was forced out and the company owed him money.

Rosenblatt blames Li for JetLev’s financial troubles.

“The former owner left the company in disarray. I came in and cut costs and provided new products,” Rosenblatt said.

JetLev’s corporate papers mention Gerszberg’s affiliation with well-known fashion designer Marc Ecko.

Gerszberg co-owns several companies affiliated with Ecko, a designer of urban hip-hop clothing popular in the 1990s, according to the lawsuit. One of those companies, a chain of retail stores across the United States that exclusively sell Marc Ecko clothing, recently filed for bankruptcy. The chain was later sold to another Gerszberg company, according to the lawsuit

Rosenblatt said Gerszberg pumped close to $5 million total into JetLev, adding that he invested money, too.

In August 2013, Rosenblatt fired many of the 20-some people who worked at JetLev, said Keith Paul, a former employee. Paul said Rosenblatt cut costs to the bone and told employees who threatened to sue for back pay that JetLev might file for bankruptcy.

The lawsuit alleges that Rosenblatt and Gerszberg created another Florida company, Aquaflier LLC, as part of a corporate shuffle intended to dodge Jetlev’s legitimate debts and shield its existing assets “so that Aquaflier could hit the ground running once it had a viable commercial product.’’

VICTIMS TELL SIMILAR STORIES

In interviews, JetLev’s customers identified Rosenblatt as the man who cheated them.

Jeff Gerlitz, a watersports enthusiast from Seattle, said he got caught up with Rosenblatt a year ago when he said he learned that JetLev was going to introduce two new and affordable jetpack products.

“I really wanted one,” said Gerlitz. “Matt said he’d cut me a deal for $8,000 if I’d wire him a $5,000 down payment.”  Gerlitz said he sent the payment in December 2013, but not his item.

In May in flew to Florida, rented a car and went to the address listed for JetLev where he met a few workers. He said he later received an email from Rosenblatt threatening him with arrest if he ever returned to the office.

Persons who complained to the Florida Attorney General’s Office, like those spoke with BrowardBulldog.org, told similar stories: that Rosenblatt wanted money up front, then didn’t deliver. Later, they said, he cut off all communication with them.

As of two months ago, Rosenblatt was still asking clients for money, according to Frazier Grandison, a Fort Lauderdale resident and ex-JetLev employee who said he originally had shares in JetLev and helped the company get on its feet with its initial product. He said he is considering a class action lawsuit against Rosenblatt as he too lost money.

“Rosenblatt is still taking money; a guy from the Bahamas sent in $50,000 a year ago and Matt told him a month ago that if he’d send in another $7,000 he would get the machines in a couple of weeks,” Grandison said in an interview last month.

O’Malley, the president of Jetpack America, said his company was the largest seller and supplier of JetLev products. A year ago, “Matt came in and promised different equipment and models,” O’Malley said, adding that he sent in the required deposits.

“He said he would deliver the products to us in November 2013. But then it was December, March, April and May. I had a number of clients waiting.”

O’Malley said that when he confronted Rosenblatt the JetLev CEO told him he planned to file for bankruptcy and walk away from the company.

But according to O’Malley’s lawsuit, the company has not filed for bankruptcy. A search of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Website shows no record of a bankruptcy filing for JetLev.

“In fact, JetLev continues to offer jetpack equipment for sale, taking deposits on equipment that has yet to be delivered,’’ the lawsuit states. “Plaintiffs did not discover that JetLev had not gone bankrupt until just recently.”

The Florida Attorney General’s Office has urged victims to file a complaint by phone or online. They can call 1-866-9NO-SCAM or 1-850-414-3990.  To file a complaint online, go to www.myflorida.legal.com

Newsletter

Notify me by email when new stories are published.

Bulldog Archives