Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Miami Gardens reaches agreement with red light camera company

Miami Gardens hopes to get in front of recent red-light camera legislation after its City Council voted to approve two agreements with the program’s vendor.

The council approved a resolution, at its Nov. 12 meeting, that amended the language of an agreement with Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions stating that the city does not have the right to give a vendor the power to issue traffic citations or to decide whether or not certain images should be sent to a local police department as potential red light violations.

The agreement now gives the authority to issue potential red light violations to the city manager and not law enforcement agencies. It also states that, “ATS does not now and never has exercised unfettered discretion in deciding” on the violations.

The changes come after a recent opinion was issued in a case in Broward’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, City of Hollywood v. Arem, and stated the company appeared to be making the decisions on the violations. The city of Hollywood can still appeal the case.

Red light cameras have been a divisive issue for motorists and cities who say the program helps prevent accidents and leads to safer roads.

In June, the state Supreme Court ruled that multiple cities, including Miami Gardens, violated their authority when they created red light camera programs between 2008 and 2010 — the infractions became official state traffic violations in July 2010.

The city also approved a joint litigation agreement as Miami Gardens and other cities, including Aventura, Margate and Florida City, have been named in class action lawsuits following the Arem decision. The agreement would allow ATS to cover the city’s legal costs in case their insurance agent, the Florida League of Cities, denies them coverage.

City Attorney Sonja Dickens declined to comment on the agreement as the case is pending.

During budget season, the city discussed the cameras during a workshop and City Manager Cameron Benson said that about $300,000 of delinquent or unpaid red light camera fines were waiting to be collected and that staff would potentially have to hire a collection agency to bring in the funding.

Dickens said at the July workshop that if the city has to pay back all of the individuals who were fined, they would owe about $4.2million, but only to the individuals who successfully pursue their claims.

ATS is also facing a $5million lawsuit in federal court brought by a group of five Hialeah residents. The residents and their attorney announced the lawsuit in a press conference last week.

“We want the money that was taken from American citizens, victims of ATS to be returned,” said Rafael Millares, Estrella Ticket Defense attorney, during a press conference held at their Miami office.

“We’ve estimated more than a million cases involving people in our community who have been affected by these fines.”

In an email sent to el Nuevo Herald, ATS representative Charles Territo said that all of the company’s programs operate in strict compliance with security laws and regulations. ATS was hired four years ago by several South Florida municipalities to fine traffic offenders who violated red lights.

“These fines are illegal and have taken money from citizens in an illegal way,” Millares said in the press conference.

“The court has found that the company [ATS] took video and photos but filtered the information themselves and chose which ones to give to the police, so in a sense they acted as an extension of the police department who took it upon itself to decide who to fine and who not to fine … that’s illegal and unconstitutional.”

ATS responded that the law firm doesn’t have the authority to decide if a violation on their behalf took place or not. “That decision belongs solely to authorities,” Territo said.

In 2012, the mayor of Hialeah, Carlos Hernandez, canceled the city’s contract with ATS implemented by former mayor Julio Robaina.