Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, Ken Burke, the County Clerk of Circuit Courts in Pinellas County, Florida, wrote a letter to the Mayor of St. Petersburg detailing his many concerns over the city’s red-light camera program. The letter created quite a stir, and we applaud Mr. Burke for speaking out. Given his “insider” status, his observations are worth noting. We’ve reprinted his letter in its entirety.
February 20, 2013
The Honorable Bill Foster
Mayor, City of St. Petersburg
175 5th Street N
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Dear Mayor Foster,
Since the inception of the Red Light Camera Violation program, the Clerk’s office has received a significant amount of inquiries from citizens who have received these violations. Many of these citizens have correctly pointed out flaws in the statute which create an unfair process.
Citizens are resentful because of this. Although red light camera violations may represent a minority of the traffic cases received by this office from law enforcement agencies, the amount of time spent with citizens dealing with issues deriving from this flawed statute is clearly disproportionate. These citizens are upset with the poor communication, insufficient information, and resulting unfair penalties. During a normal, non red light camera traffic stop, the driver of the vehicle is identified using the driver’s license. The driver acknowledges receiving the traffic citation by signing the bottom of the citation. If there is a disagreement with the citation, the driver contacts the Clerk’s office to set up a court hearing. Clerk’s offices play an integral part of the process but only after there is direct communication between the law enforcement officer and the driver.
The procedure for red light camera violations contrasts sharply with the above. There is no acknowledgement by the driver of receiving the citation at the time of issuance. Therefore, a significant number of red light camera violations are issued erroneously to the owner of the vehicle rather than the driver. In addition, because Pinellas County is a tourist destination there is the added complication of violators driving rental cars. The result is a delay in direct communication between the issuer and the actual violator. A number of people have communicated to the Clerk’s office that the first notification they received of a red light camera violation is the Uniform Traffic Citation rather than the Notice of Violation from the city, as the Notice of Violation has been mailed to the rental company and not the driver.
There are many issues that significantly distinguish the red light camera Notice of Violations from the usual Uniform Traffic Citations, such as the following:
- The driver does not receive the citation at the time of the incident.
- The driver does not have to acknowledge driving the vehicle at time of the incident.
- The fine on the Notice of Violation is $158. If not paid within 30 days of the date of the violation, the city no longer accepts the payment.
- If the driver does not pay within 30 days, the violation is in limbo. After the 30th day up until the time of issuance of the Uniform Traffic Citation (usually 60 days) there is no method for the driver to pay the fine. This creates a good amount of consternation on the part of the driver.
- Once the fine becomes a Uniform Traffic Citation, it jumps from $158 to $264.
- The driver cannot challenge the red light violation through the court system at the $158 fine level. The driver must wait until a Uniform Traffic Citation is issued at the fine rate of $264 before scheduling a court appearance.
- There is language included on the Notice of Violation sent out by the cities instructing the alleged violator: “To contest this violation: If you choose to appear before an official of the county court or plead not guilty, do not respond to this Notice of Violation. You will receive a Uniform Traffic Citation within 60 days of the violation date via certified mail. Instructions will be provided to you by the county clerk’s office as to how you should proceed.” No where included in this language is it mentioned that the fine will be $264 instead of $158. Also, it is illegal for the Clerk’s office to render legal advice. The role of Clerk’s office is to facilitate a person who wishes to contest a matter by scheduling a court date-not to “give instructions on how to proceed.”
- The registered owner of the vehicle receives the notice of violation, regardless of who was driving the vehicle at the time of the alleged offense. The owner has the option to complete an affidavit transferring liability to the driver. The driver will not receive a notice of violation with a fine amount of $158. The driver instead will receive a uniform traffic citation, which is a $264 fine.
After a red light camera violation becomes a Uniform Traffic Citation:
- If the person receiving the Uniform Traffic Citation claims they were not the driver, and contact with the Clerk’s office is within 30 days of the issuance date, the Clerk’s office supplies the person with an affidavit form which they mail to the city. The issuing city voids the citation, notifies the Clerk’s office, and may reissue the citation to the violator named in the affidavit.
- When the contact with the Clerk’s office is 30 days after the issuance of the Uniform Traffic Citation and the person indicates that they were not the driver, the Clerk’s office can set up a court appearance at the request of the person who was issued the citation.
- No points are issued against a person’s driver’s record in the case of a Uniform Traffic Citation being issued for a red light camera violation. As this is different from other traffic moving violations, citizens do inquire about the need to take a driver’s safety course.
The above items demonstrate how flawed the statute authorizing the Red Light Camera Violation program is. Citizens are resentful because of this. The red light camera violations represent a minority of the traffic related citations received by the Clerk’s office from law enforcement agencies across the county. The time spent with citizens, however, dealing with the issues due to the problems with the statute represents a disproportional amount. There is a basic unfairness.
A residual effect of the Red Light Camera Violation program is the ill will people have for our area. A citizen visiting from Delray Beach communicated to me that he was in St. Petersburg for a photo shoot for an advertising spread for a department store. He is a self-employed photographer and has the say so on the location of the shoot. He relayed to me that he will no longer pick Pinellas County to bring his business. He estimated that he dropped $4,000 in the local economy for his day’s work. He had a rental car and resented the fact that he was never given the opportunity to pay the fine of $158 instead of $264. He was correct since there was initially no direct communication to him as driver, as it was the rental car company who received the violation. Once the rental company completed the affidavit, he as the driver of the car no longer had the opportunity to pay the $158.
It is up to us in government to represent the interests of our citizens. When a statute which is discretionary to implement is so flawed, it should not be implemented.
The purpose of my letter is to request the City of St. Petersburg impose a moratorium on the issuance of red light camera violations and for the city to work with the League of Cities to correct the unfairness in the statute. The original statute was heavily supported by the League of Cities when it was passed. There should be an effort by the League to now correct the flaws in the bill. I will be glad to work with the city to educate legislators on the needed corrective action.
Please know that I am reaching out to each city within the county that has implemented this voluntary program to make the same request and to offer my help with the solution.
Thank you for your consideration of this matter.
Very truly yours,
Honorable Charlie Gerdes, Councilmember, City of St. Petersburg
Honorable Jim Kennedy, Councilmember, City of St. Petersburg
Honorable Bill Dudley, Councilmember, City of St. Petersburg
Honorable Leslie Curran, Councilmember, City of St. Petersburg
Honorable Steve Kornell, Councilmember, City of St. Petersburg
Honorable Karl Nurse, Councilmember, City of St. Petersburg
Honorable Wengay Newton, Sr., Councilmember, City of St. Petersburg
Honorable Jeff Danner, Councilmember, City of St. Petersburg