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.
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.
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.
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.
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 No. 1 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 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.”
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 that Miami Gardens gives.
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.
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 Benjamin, the magistrate 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.”
The camera statute says that 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 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 McDonald’s 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.
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.