As Easter Sunday approached in Duval County, locals were concerned with an ascension that wasn’t altogether divine — not one involving the savior incarnate so much as surveillance in camera. Locals had qualms, but as often happens when the city changes the way it does business, the coverage in the local media was somewhat less than critical.
First Coast News, on its 11 p.m. newscast on Wednesday, April 4, sought to reassure viewers of the benign nature of the program. “If you’re concerned about your privacy, the cameras will only take a picture of your car and your tag — not your face,” they noted. And “while you may not be happy about the new red-light cameras coming here, it could have happened sooner. We found a JSO document, from January 2008, which projected that red-light cameras would be operational by mid-June 2008, nearly four years ago.”
There were solid reasons not to go forth in 2008 with the red-light cameras, even though the Jacksonville City Council had approved them a year earlier. For one thing, Florida law didn’t expressly permit red-light cameras at that point — an objection noted by the General Counsel’s Office after the council approved the spycams. Also, there were objections about whether the actual driver would be ticketed. As local personal-injury lawyer Eddie Farah blogged contemporaneously, “The legal question presented is: How do you know if the ticket will be issued to the correct person?”
The dubious legality of red-light cameras was what kept the Sheriff’s Office from adopting them during the Peyton Administration, though it was clear they were on their way. In 2009, JSO issued a press release dispelling a “hoax email” that claimed 10 cameras were being installed around the city. A year later, Sheriff John Rutherford was quoted in the Times-Union as saying that he wanted red-light cameras at 10 intersections, in an article implying that the main factor mitigating against the adoption of the cameras was the lack of relevant state legislation — a condition that would eventually change.
II. Red-Light Cameras in Florida — A Brief History
Despite their legal murkiness, cash-strapped municipalities in Florida began to adopt the technology. Orlando started using cameras in September 2008, and by July 2010 had issued 48,579 red-light tickets, levied more than $6.2 million in fines, and collected $4.3 million. When the technology was challenged in court in August 2010, an Orange County circuit judge ruled that the money was to be ?refunded — because “the laudable goal” of operating the cameras was the province of the state, not the county.
“We always knew this day could come,” Orlando City Attorney Mayanne Downs said at the time, setting up an appeal that is still pending. “We thought this was a risk worth taking because of the program’s dramatic benefit to public safety.”
Aventura, a town in Dade County where a recent month saw three separate suicides at the local mall, instituted its Intersection Safety Camera Program in October 2008, and town leaders credited it with a 15 percent drop in car accidents citywide. Aventura accountants, meanwhile, credited the program with bringing $3 million into local coffers between September 2009 and July 2011. (To put that number in perspective, Aventura’s annual budget is $47 million.)
Officials in Aventura agitated for red-light cameras years before instituting them, lobbying state Sen. Gwen Margolis (D-Sunny Isles Beach) to push a bill through the Florida legislature. This effort proved initially unsuccessful, as some lawmakers had “right of privacy” concerns. Aventura City Commissioner Bob Diamond found such arguments incredible; as quoted in the Biscayne Times in September 2011, he said, “There is no right of privacy when you are driving a car.”
But in Orlando, and in other cities across the United States, a Redflex ticket was challenged in court, and thrown out on the grounds that it’s issued by a machine and not an actual officer — therefore invalid under state law.
The law changed in 2011. The Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act was passed, thanks in part to lobbying efforts by companies like Redflex, which acknowledged in a 2005 statement to the Australian Securities Exchange that “Redflex is active in supporting legislation with the USA market to promote the benefits of photo enforcement … and lobby efforts in specific states.”
It’s not known how much Redflex spent lobbying Florida legislators on behalf of this legislation; however, American Traffic Systems — another major global player in the field, the domestic operations of which, like Redflex, are based in Arizona — spent $1.5 million on the effort. In spite of objections from AAA and other parties not connected with red-light industries, then-Gov. Charlie Crist signed the Wandall Act into law to “provide law enforcement with another effective tool to enforce safe and responsible driving.”
With the Wandall Act passed, Florida municipalities were free to explore this revenue source without threat of legal challenge.
III. Working Both Sides of the S
Redflex Traffic Systems’ U.S. operations are based in Arizona, but company headquarters are in Australia, and there are similarities between how Redflex does business here and in countries where civil liberties are less of a priority.
In 2009, facing liquidity problems and the prospect of being dropped from the Australian Stock Exchange’s ASX300, Redflex made moves into the Chinese market, where the “global leader in the management of outsourced traffic infringement services” sought “to deploy the high-speed wireless broadband technology-based traffic camera systems in many major cities in China (including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Nanjing)” and “catch the market” in “Camera Enforcement Systems” and “traffic management in China.”
The great thing about doing business in China is that whatever domestic criticism there might be of the program, chances are good no one on the outside will hear about it. The process by which Redflex became part of the traffic solution in China is necessarily opaque; we don’t know the players or the process. This is in contrast to the United States, where evidence indicates that a key to Redflex’s success — like that of so many corporations which have taken over state functions from managing prisons to driving school buses — has been influencing politicians from both major parties.
Perhaps the most vivid example of Redflex blurring the lines between the public sector and private interest is to our west, in Louisiana. Charlie Buckels, who currently works for Redflex as a regional sales manager, is firmly ensconced in the hierarchy of the Louisiana Republican Party; he serves as a state party vice chair and as a member of the state central committee. Buckels also served as Newt Gingrich’s Louisiana campaign coordinator.
Buckels was brought into Redflex by Bryan Wagner, who knew the sales manager from his own involvement in the Republican Party. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2010, Wagner was involved in what could be called a kickback scheme: “Redflex had agreed to pay the former New Orleans City Councilman [Wagner] 3.2 percent of its portion of the Jefferson Parish ticket money in exchange for helping the company get the contract. In turn, Wagner agreed to split half of his compensation with a fellow lobbyist in pitching the cameras to parish officials.”
Jefferson Parish’s administration of the program was fraught with controversy. Redflex objected to the parish turning off the cameras amid concerns about payouts going to the company’s lobbyists, wanting to terminate the five-year contract two years in, and holding monies received in escrow; the company subsequently sued the parish for breach. That suit has yet to be heard in Louisiana’s 24th Judicial District. The reason? Five judges have (so far) had to recuse themselves, either because they helped to set up the policy or they had relationships with the legal teams involved.
In addition to working closely with Republican politicians, Redflex has cultivated relationships with Democrats. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a veteran of the Clinton and Obama Administrations and a former U.S. Representative, and understands as well as anyone how business is done. Right there beside him during his successful campaigns has been Greg Goldner, a Redflex “consultant” who was, in the words of Chicago Tribune reporters, “marshaling the patronage troops” to get Emanuel elected to Congress, and “doling out campaign cash” to friendly City Council candidates when Emanuel ran for mayor.
Perhaps coincidentally, Emanuel seeks to take extant red-light cameras that were installed during the previous administration and expand them into speed cameras — a classic example of mission creep. For his part, Goldner at least acknowledged why the Tribune might have seen a connection between the mayor’s friendships and his actions, saying, “The fact is, you guys are going to write your story, and you know — it’s legitimate. It’s a legitimate news story … I can’t dispute it.”
IV. Mission Creep
For some locals, what happens in Chicago is an abstract concern. But for Jacksonville lawyer Chris Carson of the firm Dale Carson Law, there is grave potential for abuse from the purportedly innocuous cameras.
“There are proven abuses,” says Carson. “Some jurisdictions have increased revenue by shortening the time on yellow lights. A few of these areas have even been forced to refund tickets because of this practice. Since a strong argument can be made that the cameras are intended for revenue as opposed to safety, private companies have an interest in writing as many tickets as possible. It could be argued that these companies would actually benefit from such abuses.”
Carson believes that the potential for the expansion of the original mandate is omnipresent.
“This is Big Brother. The government is truly watching you,” he says. “As soon as the devices are installed, additional laws will be necessary. … What if the camera takes a picture and it appears that the driver is smoking a joint? What if the license plate in the photo has expired?”
As someone who believes all government intrusions should be viewed with skepticism, Carson adds, “I feel that an Orwellian society may be coming sooner than anyone thinks.”
The cameras also present constitutional issues in three key areas: burden of proof, the right to confront one’s accuser and notice issues. And as other critics observe, red-light cameras significantly increase rear-end collisions, and don’t achieve better safety outcomes than longer yellow caution lights. But, Carson adds, safety is a secondary concern to cash flow.
“Many of those who are proponents of such cameras — politicians — are buying the selling points of companies such as Redflex,” he says, “without looking at the big picture.”
V. The Big Pic
Well, what is the big picture? Interested in official counterpoint, Folio Weekly contacted the mayor’s Chief of Staff Chris Hand, who offered no comment, and Mayoral Communications Director Dave DeCamp, who responded, “The Sheriff’s Office is taking reporters’ questions on this.”
Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford’s Special Assistant, Lauri-Ellen Smith, responded that specifics weren’t available absent a final contract. But she acknowledges that Rutherford’s office wanted to implement red-light cameras earlier, and deferred in light of mitigating reasons. “As you probably know, after the local ordinance passed, the sheriff and General Counsel Howard Maltz had concerns about the lawsuits against municipalities around Florida that had already approved and installed red-light cameras,” says Smith. “The sheriff decided to work with the state legislature to ensure there would be legislation that would formally authorize their installation. The Wandall Act was the result.”
Regarding concerns that the cameras could be used for purposes other than those authorized, Smith says that “is a matter of opinion, which everyone is entitled to. But cameras that capture the photo of the license plate and vehicle [as opposed to a photo of the face of the driver] in the commission of a specific traffic violation that is proven to cause serious injury or even death can help reduce the costly effects of crashes and injury and correct bad driving behavior.”
Contrary to assertions from other quarters, Smith denies that profit drives the program. “There is no concern by the sheriff about revenue. Preventing crashes; saving lives; preventing serious impact to peoples insurance rates: these are [Rutherford’s] primary concerns. … We’re working to design a program that will be cost neutral, at the least. ?The goal is to place the cameras in ?approaches to intersections that have proven to be a high-volume red-light-running and crash locations.”
If nothing else, the JSO seems to be learning from the mistakes of early adopters of red-light cameras. Regarding the $158 to be collected for each citation, the money is earmarked for “the state’s health administrative trust fund” and “the brain and spinal cord injury trust.”
Smith also makes clear that administering the program will not require additional personnel, and “there will be extensive public notification of the EXACT locations of every camera that is being installed PRIOR to the program beginning.” There will also be a 30-day “grace period,” in which warnings will be sent out in lieu of citations.
VI. Simply Red
If polls mean anything, this is a time when there is sufficient political capital to install red-light cameras. A recent survey by FrederickPolls claims that 72 percent of all Floridians support “Florida’s red-light safety camera program.” This statistic jibes nicely with Mayor Alvin Brown’s recent approval numbers in the 75 percent range. Questions may remain about the compatibility of red-light cameras with traditional concepts of civil liberties, but there will be no meaningful resistance to their installation, a seemingly new idea years in the making.