South Florida cities with red light cameras scramble to meet deadline for traffic court

 

jsimmons@MiamiHerald.com

Some South Florida cities’ red-light camera programs will come to a screeching halt Monday as municipalities scramble to comply with a new state law.

The law, which will go into effect Monday, says drivers nabbed by a red-light camera have the right to contest their citations before a special local hearing board.

Some cities don’t have one, and will stop issuing tickets until they do.

In Miami, city commissioners quickly assembled to vote on an emergency ordinance to create a special hearing system, but the measure did not get the four-fifths majority it would have needed to pass, said Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff.

Without a hearing board, Miami can’t issue red-light camera tickets without violating state law, he said.

Some commissioners would rather scrap the camera program entirely than set up the new hearing system. They’ll vote again on July 11.

“When that happens,” Sarnoff said, “we’ll either have an ordinance or we won’t have an ordinance. So there will either be red-light cameras, or there won’t be.”

Eliminating the red-light camera program would mean breaching the city’s contract with camera company American Traffic Solutions, which Miami pays to operate and maintain the cameras, said Sarnoff.

Doral also will halt its camera program until it decides whether to create a special hearing board or get rid of the cameras altogether.

Doral Mayor Luigi Boria wants them gone, but that’s a matter for the city commission, he said. The body will vote on the cameras in August.

Until then, people caught on camera blowing through one of the city’s red lights won’t get a ticket.

Davie, North Bay Village and El Portal are not talking about eliminating their camera programs, but they will stop issuing tickets until the special hearing boards are set up.

Other cities managed to create a special hearing system in time for the Monday deadline — barely.

Coral Gables’ city commission adopted an emergency ordinance to create administrative hearings, but hasn’t figured out where to hold them.

For now, drivers who contest their tickets will probably do so in the basement of the police station, said city attorney Craig Leen.

Hollywood also hasn’t worked out the details of how the new hearings will be conducted, said city spokeswoman Raelin Storey.

But the city plans to be ready by the time drivers ticketed on Monday receive their citations, which can take about a month.

“The legislation doesn’t give a time frame for when you have to be ready to go with this,” Storey said. “The new legislation goes into effect July 1, but there’s nothing saying the first hearing has to be July 1.”

In the meantime, she said, Hollywood will expand the special magistrate process it uses for code enforcement hearings to cover red-light camera citation hearings.

Homestead also plans to make use of the lag time between when drivers get their tickets and when their appeals are held.

The city adopted an ordinance creating a local citation appeals court, but hasn’t yet picked someone to run it.

That’s not a problem, said Crystal Ollivierre, Homestead Code Compliance supervisor, because the first hearing won’t be until September.

Once they start, she said, the hearings will be held on a regular schedule.

“Appeals will be heard by a local hearing officer two weeks out of the month,” she said. Instructions for requesting a hearing will be printed on drivers’ citations.

Hallandale Beach will continue issuing tickets as it sets up a special magistrate system, and might coordinate with other municipalities like Hollywood, said city spokesperson Peter Dobens.

“At this point, the city is talking with other cities in the area about having a magistrate that will handle all of our cases,” he said.

Surfside has five cameras and still isn’t sure if it will be using them Monday.

Town administrators will meet Monday to discuss its legal options, then discuss them at a commission meeting in mid-July.

“We may just go dark for a couple of weeks until the commission decides, or we may continue to issue citations,” said Surfside Police Chief David Allen. “It depends on what legal tells us on Monday.”

City Manager Michael Crotty said the town needs to vote to create a citation appeals system.

“We have no other option,” he said. “The commission must approve an ordinance to create the board at the next commission meeting.”

Some cities, especially those that rely on revenue from their red-light cameras, prepared for the new law early.

Miami Springs expects about $600,000 in revenue from its red-light cameras next year, and the city is counting on that money, said City Manager Ron Gorland.

The city can’t afford to just turn the cameras off or not send out the tickets they generate.

“We are well underway with the court planning, code changes, etc,” he said. “We’ll be ready for the first appeal.”

Miami Springs’ city’s council voted 5-0 on Monday to create a local hearing board, Gorlond said.

Medley also is prepared, said City Attorney Michael Pizzi, and approved an ordinance to create local hearing boards weeks ago.

“I started writing it while they were still in session in Tallahassee,” Pizzi said. “Medley will have its own traffic court starting Monday.”

Medley makes about $500,000 a year from its four red-light cameras, Pizzi said.

Officials from Margate and North Miami said their cities are ready for the new law and will continue issuing citations Monday.

The new red-light camera measures are part of a sweeping 226-page highway safety bill passed during the last legislative session and signed by Governor Rick Scott on June 12.

The rules move red-light camera citation hearings out of the county court system and let drivers contest their tickets earlier.

Under current policy, drivers ticketed by a red-light camera must wait 30 days until their $158 notice of violation becomes a $264 Uniform Traffic Citation in order to contest it.

If they go to court and lose, they’re on the hook for the higher bill.

Starting Monday, motorists who get a ticket can ask for a hearing at any time.

The hearing will be run by a hearing officer from the city that issued the citation, and cities can charge drivers up to an additional $250 in fees if they lose, bringing the total cost of their ticket from $158 to $408.

Some cities, like Fort Lauderdale and Coral Gables, plan to use that money to cover the cost of creating the new hearings.

Coral Gables will charge drivers a $200 fee to cover administrative costs and use its current code-enforcement magistrates to hear red-light citation appeals, said Leen, the city attorney.

Miami Herald staff writers Joey Flechas, Patricia Borns, Jenny Staletovich, Rodolfo Roman, Angel L. Doval, Theo Karantsalis, Paradise Afshar, Lidia Dinkova and Sam Abbassi contributed to this report.

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