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.
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.
“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,’ ” Benjamin, the magistrate and a resident of Miami Gardens, said. “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 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.
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.