Manatee red light camera contract appears to be illegal

MANATEE COUNTY, Florida -- The county where the state's red light camera movement started appears to have an illegal contract with its camera provider.

Manatee County's contract with Associated Computer Systems (Read: PDF), a company owned by Xerox, states the county cannot ease enforcement of "rolling right" violations or it will owe ACS a $75 fee for every violation it chooses not to write. The totals could cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.

However, state law prohibits "a fee or remuneration based upon the number of violations detected through the use of a traffic infraction detector."

The discovery, first reported by 10 Investigates, came to light after commissioners asked county staff if there was any room for leniency in ticketing right turns on red. Manatee County has developed a reputation as one of the region's strictest-enforcers of automated red light camera ticketing.

Florida's law regulating red light cameras (RLC) is called the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, named after the Manatee County man who was killed by a red light-runner in 2003.

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It is unclear what legal repercussions ticketed drivers may have in Manatee County, but a similar contract clause, found to be illegal by a judge in Cocoa Beach, invalidated tickets of drivers who sued.

On Tuesday, county commissioners heard from staff members and representatives from the sheriff's office about how the RLC program has been operated. While most commissioners asked few questions, several raised concerns brought about by 10 Investigates' reporting.

Commissioner Betsy Benac expressed concern that Manatee County's threshold for right turn tickets was lower than neighboring counties.

Commissioner Michael Gallen questioned why the county heralded the safety benefits of the cameras, yet installed them in just one of the county's 10 most-dangerous intersections. He also appeared concerned the cameras were installed based on which intersections would generate the most tickets, including generally safe "rolling right" maneuvers.

10 Investigates discovered the county studied numerous intersections for new cameras in 2012. Over the course of three hours at US-301 SB at 60th Ave, observers saw zero straight-through violations and only five left-turn violations. But with 30 right-turn violations, it was selected as a camera intersection, instead of one of the crash-prone intersections the sheriff's office identified.

"When we passed this ordinance, it was to protect lives," Gallen said, "not to choose an intersection that had the most right turn on reds."

When Sheriff Brad Steube was asked about the low risk but high penalty for drivers who "roll through" right turns slowly, he echoed 10 Investigates' findings that only 0.4% of accidents are due to drivers failing to stop before proceeding right at a red light. Yet the large majority of Manatee County's $158 RLC tickets are for "rolling rights."

Most commissions seemed satisfied with staff's explanations of the RLC program.

John Barnott, Manatee County's Building and Development Services Director, told commission the drop in violations issued since July 2013 was proof the cameras were working. However, he made no mention of the state's required extension of all yellow lights at RLC intersections - a safety improvement that led to huge drops in tickets issued.

Sgt. Michael Kenyon with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) told commissioners that officers still review every single possible violation and more than half still get rejected, so the notion of "zero tolerance" by the agency is incorrect. He said he didn't know why the county's interpretation of what constitutes a red light camera violation differs from neighboring counties, but he tickets drivers via RLC the same way he would ticket them if he were out at an intersection conducting traffic enforcement.

Barnott and Steube explained to commissioners how speed sensors track drivers approximately 26 and 20 feet prior to the intersection and any car traveling more than 12 miles per hour is generally considered in violation unless it comes to a full- or near-stop. But while some other bay-area communities also use the 12 mph threshold, their rejection rates are often higher. Sarasota County uses a 25 mph threshold while Hillsborough County and the City of Bradenton each use 15 mph.

"Right now, we look like the little community that makes all its living off ticketing people in 'no-win' situations," said resident Steve Albritton, one of just two people to speak on RLC during the public comment portion of the meeting.

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