Red-light camera fee fight sent to Supreme Court

Florida News
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — Pointing to “questions that may have sweeping implications for dozens of municipal traffic enforcement regimes across Florida,” a federal appeals court is asking the Florida Supreme Court to help resolve a challenge to fees that motorists can be charged by red-light camera companies.

The potential class-action lawsuit stems from a $7.90 fee that motorist Steven Pincus faced after a camera operated by American Traffic Solutions, Inc., captured him running a red light in North Miami Beach. The company, a major player in the red-light camera industry, added the fee when Pincus used a credit card to pay a $158 penalty for running the red light, according to a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pincus filed the lawsuit alleging, in part, that the fee involved “unjust enrichment” under state law. A federal district judge sided with American Traffic Solutions and dismissed the case, but the appellate panel in a 31-page decision Tuesday requested that the Florida Supreme Court resolve questions about interpretations of state law — a process known as certifying questions to the state court.

The appellate court cited an “absence of guiding precedent on these questions of state law” and the potentially far-reaching implications of the case. It said, for example, that at least 46 local governments in Florida had red-light camera programs between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, with all contracting with American Traffic Solutions or similar companies.

“So, the statutory issues raised by this case — which will determine whether a vendor may add a surcharge to red light camera penalties in exchange for permitting individuals to pay their penalties by credit card — may affect millions of Floridians and dozens of Florida’s municipal traffic enforcement regimes,” said the decision, written by Judge Jill Pryor and joined by Judges Robin Rosenbaum and Elizabeth Branch. “Resolution of the common law issues may also reverberate throughout Florida, affecting Florida’s unjust enrichment law across diverse contexts. Principles of federalism and comity counsel us not to attempt to divine the answers to these challenging and important questions of Florida statutory and common law.”

Red-light cameras in Florida have long been controversial and have spawned a variety of legal challenges. Also, the Legislature has considered repealing a law that allows local governments to use red-light cameras, though such a repeal has not passed.

Tuesday’s decision said American Traffic Solutions received a monthly service fee from North Miami Beach based on the number of cameras it operated. Under an agreement with the city, the company also was allowed to charge a 5 percent fee that would be paid by violators. The company charged the fee when Pincus paid with a credit card, though he could have avoided the fee if he had paid the $158 penalty by check or money order, according to the appellate court.

In arguing that the additional fee involved unjust enrichment, Pincus raised a series of allegations, including that it was an illegal commission and a prohibited surcharge under different parts of state law.

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