TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (News Service of Florida) — The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments in October in a potential class-action lawsuit about fees that motorists can be charged by a company that plays a key role in local red-light camera programs.
The court issued an order Monday scheduling a hearing Oct. 5 in the lawsuit filed by Steven Pincus, who received a citation after a camera operated by American Traffic Solutions, Inc., captured him running a red light in North Miami Beach in 2018.
Pincus contends that American Traffic Solutions collected an improper $7.90 fee when he used a credit card to pay a $158 traffic fine because of the citation. American Traffic Solutions had a contract with North Miami Beach that included operating cameras and processing payments.
The lawsuit contends that the additional fee is not allowed by state laws designed to lead to uniform traffic rules.
“Despite what ATS (American Traffic Solutions) contends, neither it nor the city are ‘authorized’ to charge, collect, or retain any fines, fees, surcharges, or costs other than those fixed by state law,” Pincus’ attorney, Bret Lusskin, wrote in a March brief at the Supreme Court. “In flouting this rule, ATS has parasitized Florida’s photo-enforced red light paradigm, inflating almost every single civil penalty by 5% for its own profit, in addition to its contractual remuneration for operating the city’s camera program.”
But attorneys for the company said a violation notice advised Pincus that he would have to pay the “convenience fee” if he used a credit card. He could have avoided the fee if he paid by check or money order.
“Nobody has to pay the convenience fee as part of the penalty,” the company’s attorneys from the Carlton Fields law firm wrote in a May brief. “That is, the violator does not incur the convenience fee because the violator is issued an NOV (a notice of violation). The violator chooses to pay the convenience fee in order to obtain the convenience of using a credit card. It is not compulsory. The convenience fee is implicated only when the violator, in his or her sole discretion, chooses to pay with a credit card.”
Red-light cameras in Florida have long been controversial and have spawned a variety of legal challenges. Also, the Legislature has repeatedly considered repealing a law that allows local governments to use red-light cameras, though such a repeal has not passed.
Pincus filed the lawsuit in 2018 in federal court in South Florida, but U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks sided with American Traffic Solutions in 2019 and dismissed the case. Pincus challenged the decision at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A panel of the appeals court in February asked the Florida Supreme Court to help resolve questions about interpretations of state law in the case, 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 February 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.”