Collier attorney who received red light ticket vows to continue to fight it in court

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— Sebouh Gourjian of Naples was ticketed after a traffic camera in August caught his silver Honda turning right at a red light without stopping.

But six months later, the 40-year-old criminal defense attorney still refuses to pay the $125 ticket. He contends Collier County’s ordinance is preempted by state law.

In November, he lost an appeal before a code enforcement special magistrate, who ordered him to pay the ticket and $50 more in costs. The next month, he plunked down $400 to file an administrative appeal in Collier Circuit Court. And on Thursday, he argued his case.

“I’m asking the court not to have the ordinance enforced,” Gourjian told Collier Circuit Judge Cynthia Pivacek at a brief hearing. “I think it would be appropriate to stay.”

“It’s a problem with many Collier citizens,” Gourjian said of motorists getting ticketed for turning right at red lights without coming to a full stop. “We believe it’s unconstitutional. Clearly, on its face, it’s preempted by state statute.”

But Pivacek denied Gourjian’s motion, which asked her to stay the enforcement of the ordinance for all motorists until the Legislature votes on Senate Bill 294.

“I don’t think it’s properly before the court,” Pivacek explained.

To do what he wanted, she said, he’d have plead his case and prove it. Pivacek denied his motion without prejudice, allowing him to refile his administrative appeal — this time by seeking injunctive relief.

Gourjian isn’t accustomed to arguing civil cases, but said he has no problem refiling the appeal against county commissioners.

“I wanted to stay the ordinance so people don’t get cited,” Gourjian said after the hearing. “I will fight. ... I won’t pay the ticket.”

A day earlier, Pivacek granted a motion by attorney Steven Williams, who represents Collier County. He’d asked for an extension of time to file an answer to Gourjian’s appeal, arguing that Senate Bill 294 will result in a new law.

“It’s all moot if it passes,” Williams said Thursday, referring to Gourjian’s appeal. “From everything that we have heard, it will pass.”

And if it does, that means Collier County’s tickets, which were reduced to $62.50 after a public outcry, will cost $155. “There’s nothing the county can do about it,” Williams said of the increase.

“We’ll see what the Legislature does. If it drops it, we’ll be back,” Williams said of Gourjian’s case.

Williams said 83 percent of Collier’s red-light tickets involve drivers turning on red without stopping. After many motorists complained, the county added signs at red lights, telling motorists the law requires them to come to a full stop before turning.

Senate Bill 294, introduced in October, has a matching House bill, 325, filed a month later. The bills before the state Legislature would bring consistency to the varied local red-light camera programs operating in Florida cities and counties. So far, 23 municipalities statewide have some sort of a red-light camera law.

This month, Lee County commissioners refused to use cameras to catch red-light runners, citing concern over lawsuits filed in 13 counties, including Collier, that challenge ticketing drivers through the use of unmanned cameras.

The bills would require governments to enact an ordinance to use a traffic infraction detector to identify a vehicle that fails to stop at a steady red light. They also would provide that the registered owner of the motor vehicle is responsible for paying the fine.

The $155 fine would give $75 to municipalities, $55 to the state general fund, and $25 to the Health Administration Trust Fund, with much of that going to trauma centers and emergency rooms.

Gourjian’s appeal argued that the cameras operated by American Traffic Solutions, which has the contract in Collier County, don’t meet requirements set by the Florida Department of Transportation, as state law mandates.

“Because the cameras are not in compliance with Florida statutes, the county went beyond its empowered police powers in issuing code violations,” Gourjian wrote in a 25-page brief.

He contended Collier County Code Enforcement Special Magistrate Brenda Garretson, who held a hearing on On Nov. 17, allowed a document to be entered as evidence although it didn’t meet the requirements of the law. That document said the vehicle belonged to him.

He also maintained that the Board of Commissioners of Collier County enacted ordinance 08-22, the red-light camera law, in bad faith, so they can’t argue immunity in his lawsuit and are responsible for his fees and costs in fighting his ticket.

He noted that Florida Statute 316.002’s intent was to make uniform traffic laws to apply throughout the state and its counties and for uniform traffic ordinances to apply in all municipalities.

Gourjian also argued the cameras are not approved by the state Department of Transportation, as the law requires, so the videotapes and cameras shouldn’t be allowed as evidence.

He also noted that the state Attorney General issued an opinion five years ago that bars enforcement of tickets involving unmanned red-light cameras and called county commissioners deceitful because they told citizens the opinion, which answered a question by the Pembroke Pines city attorney, allowed such enforcement. It was the second such opinion issued by a Florida attorney general.

“If exhibit A had not been admitted,” Gourjian’s brief said of the video showing his car, “then (commissioners) would have no evidence tying the vehicle in question to Sebouh Gourjian. ... The ticket issued to Sebouh Gourjian should be reversed because of improper evidence.”

The pending class-action lawsuit in Collier Circuit Court, which is among 13 filed across the state, cites that opinion, 2005-41, and calls the county’s ordinance unfair and illegal. The lawsuit was filed in October by West Palm Beach attorney Jason Weisser on behalf of two drivers ticketed in Collier County, Bennett Cinquigrana and Rita C. Siegel.

It hasn’t yet been certified as a class-action lawsuit, which would allow other ticketed drivers to benefit from any compensation or damages the plaintiffs win.

“In most jurisdictions, these companies literally issue the tickets and collect the fines,” says the lawsuit against Collier County, American Traffic Solutions LLC and ATS American Traffic Solutions Inc. “These practices have resulted in the defendants’ unjust enrichment, which is due to conversion of property belonging to plaintiffs and the deprivation of the plaintiff’s state, constitutional and statutory rights.”

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Comments » 1

u2cane writes:

They should make this guy pay way more than anyone else, he is lawyer and knows he broke the law. Folks, its still the law and has been the law as far back as I can remember, illegal to make a right on red without coming to a complete stop. Guess what else folks, its also illegal to roll through a stop sign. DON'T DO THE CRIME IF YOU CANT PAY THE FINE. Start driving more responsibly and you won't have to worry.

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