Appeal ruling throws out dozens of Collier, Lee driver license suspensions, may affect others

The Ticket Clinic of Fort Lauderdale, a group of lawyers, filed appeals that affect 80 of its cases in Collier and Lee counties, arguing that judges couldn’t suspend licenses just for a speeding ticket.The lawyers argued all circumstances of a case have to be considered and put on the court record.

“This is a huge, huge ruling,” said Ted Hollander, whose firm argued that judges were improperly suspending licenses in speeding cases.

— Some were Naples residents, while others were just traveling through the area. Many earned a living by driving for work.

So when they were caught speeding in 2008, they fought back by hiring a group of lawyers who specialize in traffic tickets, but they lost their cases.

So the group of lawyers, the Ticket Clinic of Fort Lauderdale, filed six appeals that affect 80 cases in Collier and Lee counties, arguing that judges couldn’t suspend licenses just for a speeding ticket.

This month, the law firm was successful in its appeal in getting the license suspensions reversed and began filing 80 motions to correct sentences.

The appeal rulings handed down by a panel of circuit court judges could affect more license suspensions than just the firm’s 70 cases in Collier and 10 in Lee.

Since Collier County judges took over traffic cases from hearing officers in April 2008, court records show that 9,989 speeding cases have led to hearings, with 1,615 suspensions.

“This is a huge, huge ruling,” said Ted Hollander, whose firm argued that judges were improperly suspending licenses in speeding cases.

His firm practices in the state’s 67 counties, but he said the improper suspensions only occurred in Collier and Lee.

“The suspension statute is for accidents with injuries,” said Hollander, whose firm just opened a Fort Myers office Monday. “I argued it wasn’t for speeding tickets, but they didn’t believe me. I’ve been objecting to this for a very long time.”

Hollander contended it is up to the state Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend a license for speeding after a driver’s points add up — not a judge.

“This should put an end to suspensions,” Hollander said of the appeal ruling. “This means that every person whose license they suspended for only speeding was suspended in error.”

The rulings send the cases back to county court for further proceedings. But a judge only has to rehear the cases and specify why a suspension was ordered to make it stick.

This past week, members of Hollander’s firm filed 10 motions daily to correct sentences and sent the last few in on Friday. He’s hoping no hearing will be required.

The motions ask judges to remove the suspension and to direct the Department of Motor Vehicles in Tallahassee to correct the dispositions by removing the suspension from the person’s driving record.

The ruling involves cases heard by Collier County judges Vince Murphy, Mike Carr, Robert Crown, Eugene Turner, and Lee County judges John Duryea Jr., Tara Paluck, James R. Adams, Maria Gonzalez and Radford Sturgis, who has since retired.

Collier County Judge Vince Murphy in court during a March 2010 case.Greg Kahn/Staff

Photo by GREG KAHN

Collier County Judge Vince Murphy in court during a March 2010 case.Greg Kahn/Staff

The appeal rulings handed down by a panel of circuit court judges could affect more license suspensions than just the firm’s 70 cases in Collier and 10 in Lee.

Since Collier County judges took over traffic cases from hearing officers in April 2008, court records show that 9,989 speeding cases have led to hearings, with 1,615 suspensions.

It was a 1987 bill that gave judges the ability to suspend or revoke a driver license based on what happens in one incident.

The law was prompted by the death of a 43-year-old triathlete, killed while bicycling on a residential road. He was training when he was hit by a teenage driver who crossed the center line.

The judge could only fine the teenager $500 for reckless driving. After that, the Legislature changed the law.

Attorney Karen Gievers pushed for the bill for months and went to speak to a legislative committee before its unanimous vote of approval. It was her husband, Joe, who was killed on Feb. 24, 1987.

Karen Gievers is now a circuit judge in Leon County (Tallahassee).

“I thought that we should have a way for judges to consider all the circumstances to determine if someone was not ready to be on the road,” she said Friday. “We wanted the judge to be able to consider the circumstances, whether it was a pedestrian, bicyclist, anyone — even if the person driving didn’t have a lot of points. We wanted judicial involvement so judges could weigh in and make the roads safer.”

The judges on the appeal panel were Collier Circuit Judge Hugh Hayes, Lee Circuit Judge Bruce Kyle and Lee Circuit Judge Lynn Gerald. It was Gerald who dissented in the 2-1 appeal opinion.

The lawyers challenged the suspensions on three grounds, losing on two issues. They lost challenges based on the use of visual speed estimates and radar readings, and whether judges erred by not dismissing the tickets when the lawyers filed motions for a judgment of acquittal.

The lawyers won on the third issue, however — the way the suspensions were handled.

The appeal decision said the county judges failed to follow the requirements of Florida Statute 316.655(2) because they didn’t place the factors and “totality of circumstances” they considered on the court record when they ordered the suspensions.

“Although the trial court has the authority under (the statute) to impose the suspension, the trial court failed to follow the requirements of Section 316.655(2),” the decision states.

Florida law says drivers convicted of a violation of any offense under that statute or any other state motor vehicle law may have their driving privileges revoked or suspended if the court finds it’s warranted by the “totality of the circumstances” that resulted in the conviction — and the need to provide for the maximum safety of anyone on the state’s roads.

In determining whether a suspension or license revocation is appropriate, the statute says, a judge shall consider all pertinent factors. Among those factors are the extent and nature of the driver’s violation of the chapter, the number of persons killed or injured as the result of the driver’s violation and the extent of any property damage.

Hollander contended Collier and Lee judges were considering past driving records, not just the one ticket in the case. He used the state’s public records law to reach that conclusion.

In 2008, his firm reviewed state statistics and determined that about 86 percent of drivers who contested speeding cases in Collier County were found guilty. In comparison, 5 percent were convicted elsewhere.

Suspicious, they requested judges’ e-mails under the state public records law. One provided insight.

An April 4, 2008, e-mail from judge Murphy to other Collier County judges detailed how he and Turner handled cases in traffic court three days earlier. It referred to Hollander’s firm fighting tickets.

Titled “Traffic Court sentencing,” the e-mail told judges to look back to Jan. 1, 2000, to see if a driver’s record was bad. If it had been good since then, the e-mail said, “probably no suspension.”

Judges could suspend a license for 30 days if there was a prior speeding ticket in the past two or three months. If the motorist was going 100 mph or more, the e-mail said to suspend the license, basing the length on a driver’s past record. If there were “lots of speeding tickets,” the e-mail said to suspend the license three months to a year. Teens or those in their early 20s should get a “short suspension” if their records weren’t bad, the e-mail said.

Calling that e-mail prejudging and biased, Hollander and co-counsel Mark Gold filed a motion to disqualify all Collier County judges from traffic cases. They lost that argument, then went to court and lost again — resulting in the driver license suspensions of their clients.

Their 2008 appeals pointed out no one was killed or injured; that nothing was damaged. Their clients were just speeding.

“Suspension of a license is not a possible sanction for appellant’s alleged traffic violation,” the lawyers argued.

Prosecutors argued the other side. In one reply brief, Assistant State Attorney James F. Stewart argued the statute gives judges the power to suspend licenses for Chapter 316 violations, “if warranted by the totality of the circumstances.”

Responding to prosecutors, Ticket Clinic lawyers contended the Legislature’s intent was “obvious,” giving judges discretion to suspend in extreme circumstances, such as deaths or serious injuries.

“It was not intended to replace the point system in suspending drivers who get numerous tickets,” they argued.

Hollander is confident the suspensions will be lifted.

“This bill was created because someone was killed and judges did not have the ability to suspend licenses,” he said. “This was not created just for speeding.”

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