AVENTURA – A Florida appeals court decision last week in favor of Aventura's red-light camera program means drivers who received traffic tickets from the city may need to pay up, a law professor said during a recent interview.
"The decision means that all of the drivers charged in these matters, absent review by the Florida Supreme Court, will have to answer to the red light charges," Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Visiting Professor Jeffrey D. Swartz said during a Florida Record email interview. "Ultimately, they cannot get points, but they can be fined."
Citation holders in the Aventura case who still want to skip out on those fines now must place their hopes in the Florida Supreme Court, which the appeals court did urge to take up the case.
Florida's 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled July 27 in favor of the city of Aventura and its red-light camera program. That ruling, which overturned a lower court ruling that had gone against Aventura, rejected a motorist's claims that the south Florida city gave too much authority to its third-party vendor, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions, which operates its red-light camera program.
The 3rd District found that Aventura relies on police officers, not its private contractor, when making decisions about traffic citations.
"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," the ruling said. "The officers make these decisions in the same manner they decide to issue a roadside citation."
That it was Aventura law enforcement officers, and not the city's red-light camera vendor, who actually handled the traffic citations, was the linchpin in this decision, Swartz said.
"In short, the 3 DCA has decided the city of Aventura has properly delegated certain responsibilities to a contract vendor," he said. "The key is the lack of 'unfettered discretion.' The actions of the vendor are reviewed and approved by a licensed police officer employed by the Aventura Police Department. The ultimate decision to charge or not falls upon the reviewing officer, not the vendor. Thus the vendor has little discretion, other than to remove from consideration those the vendor clearly can determine are not chargeable as to any individual."
The case involves a motorist, Luis Torres Jimenez, who challenged the traffic citation he received for improperly turning right at a red light. Jimenez argued the city of Aventura had unlawfully provided unfettered discretion to American Traffic Solutions to review images and then print and issue citations.
A lower court in Miami-Dade County dismissed Jimenez's citation, referring to a 2014 ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal in a similar case against the city of Hollywood. However, that court also recommended the 3rd District take up the case.
In its 29-page ruling, the 3rd District found in favor of the city of Aventura's red-light camera program, saying police officers, not the third-party vendor, made decisions about traffic citations.
"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," the 3rd District ruling said. "The officers make these decisions in the same manner they decide to issue a roadside citation."
However, as with the lower court, the 3rd District also ruled that this matter needs to be addressed by an even higher court. The 3rd District's ruling certified three issues in the case that have great public importance and urged the Florida Supreme Court to take up the matter.
That likely would not be the only reason the state Supreme Court would agree to review the case, Swartz said.
"Even though the court certified three questions of great public importance, the most likely reason the court would take the case is due to the conflict this case has with the 4th District Court of Appeal ruling two years ago," he said. "But if the court does not find that the two decisions, despite a different result, do not conflict with each other, it will refuse to take jurisdiction."
The Jimenez case is one of many pieces of litigation involving multiple cities in the state that are working through the courts. In April, the Florida Supreme Court declined to rule on a 4th District Court of Appeals decision that the city of Hollywood outsourced too much of its program to its red light vendor. The 4th District ruling had promoted courts in Broward County to dismiss more than 24,000 red-light-camera tickets and Palm Beach County put its own program on hold.
The state Supreme Court ruled this past spring that earlier versions of the Florida's red light law were unfair to rental car drivers.
All that legal pressure, especially in southern Florida, has been enough for most cities that implemented red-light camera programs to discontinue those programs.