TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A federal appeals court has refused to block part of a class-action lawsuit that seeks to force Florida local governments to refund money to motorists who were cited for running red lights after being recorded by traffic cameras.
The case includes dozens of local governments throughout the state and, according to a brief filed by attorneys for the cities and counties, involves potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.
It is part of a series of lawsuits in state and federal courts challenging the way local governments have carried out a Florida law that allows the use of red-light cameras to nab traffic violators.
The ruling last week by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with arguments by local governments that they should be shielded from a legal claim of “unjust enrichment” that serves as a basis for the request for refunds. Those arguments stem from sovereign immunity, a legal concept that helps protect government agencies from costly lawsuits.
A U.S. District Court judge in South Florida rejected arguments that the “unjust enrichment” claim should be dismissed, and a panel of the appeals court also turned down the local governments’ arguments in a 17-page ruling last week. The appeals court pointed to court precedent and procedural issues to find that it lacked “jurisdiction” over the appeal.
In a brief filed last year, the local governments indicated their red-light camera programs fell under state law and that plaintiffs in the lawsuit should not be able to recoup fines paid for traffic violations.
“Each of the local government decisions plaintiffs challenge … in connection with the red light camera programs are discretionary, planning decisions that seek to allocate resources to the enforcement of statewide traffic laws,” the brief said. “This case does not involve an exaction scenario where the local governments have sought to impose a fine or fee not authorized by state statute.”
The case is based, at least in part, on a 2014 state appeals-court ruling that found Hollywood violated state law by relying too heavily on a private contractor to run its red-light camera program. In that case, a motorist received a traffic citation generated by American Traffic Solutions, Inc., a company that had a contract with Hollywood to provide cameras and other related services.
The plaintiffs in the class-action case said in a brief that local governments do not have immunity from “illegal monetary extraction” claims.
“As alleged in the complaint, the defendants unlawfully collected traffic fines, which were void at their inception because they were the product of the defendants’ … outsourcing to private, for-profit vendors of their non-delegable statutory authority to, among other things, review alleged red-light camera traffic infractions and issue notices of violations and uniform traffic citations,” the plaintiffs’ brief said. “A Florida appellate court has already held that such practices, if ultimately proven here, violate Florida law and invalidate the citations.”
The plaintiffs’ brief indicated the case in U.S. District Court also includes other types of legal claims, including violations of a state law known as the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The case has been on hold while the federal appeals court dealt with the sovereign-immunity issue.
Red-light cameras have long been controversial, touching off legislative debates along with the legal fights. While the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal ruled against the Hollywood red-light camera program in 2014, another state appeals court upheld the city of Aventura’s program this year.
The Aventura case also focused heavily on the role of a contractor, though the 3rd District Court of Appeal tried to draw distinctions between that city’s program and the Hollywood program.
The News Service of Florida’s Jim Saunders contributed to this report.