April 12, 2016

Florida Supreme Court Agrees that Rental-Car Drivers Must Be Treated Equally After Red-Light Camera Violations

City of Fort Lauderdale v. Dhar, 41 Fla. L. Weekly S 61 (Fla. 2016)

On February 25, 2016, the Florida Supreme Court decided that section 316.0083, Florida Statutes (2012) was unconstitutional as applied to short-term vehicle renters because there was no rational basis to justify treating short-term renters differently than registered owners and registered long-time lessees who were captured on camera running a red light.

The case arose from an incident in 2012 where a camera captured a rental car running a red light in Fort Lauderdale. The City sent a notice of violation to the rental car company. The company sent an affidavit identifying the renter, who was presumed to be the driver. The renter then received a uniform traffic citation.

If she had been driving her own car, the driver would have received a notice of violation, not a uniform traffic citation. If she paid the statutory penalty for the notice of violation within 30 days, a uniform traffic citation would not be issued; the violation would not be filed in the court; there would be no court costs; and the violation would not appear on her driving record.

But under the 2012 edition of the redline-camera statute in effect at that time, the rental-car driver received a uniform traffic citation, which was filed in the county court and would involve significantly higher expenditures, such as for court costs. Her driving record would also be tarnished unless the uniform traffic citation were to be dismissed by the county court.

The driver moved to dismiss the citation, arguing that section 316.0083, Florida Statutes, violated her rights to equal protection and due process under the Constitution because the statute treated her differently than people driving their own cars. The county court agreed and dismissed the citation. The State then appealed to the Fourth DCA in March of 2013, seeking to uphold the 2012 statute and reverse the dismissal of the traffic citation.

A few months later, the statute was amended to give short-term vehicle renters the opportunity to receive a notice of violation instead of a uniform traffic citation. However, the amendment did not moot the appeal. The Fourth DCA proceeded with the review and held that “the City failed to present any meritorious argument that supports treating short-term renters differently than registered owners and lessees under the pre-2013 version of the statute. Accordingly, the county court’s order granting Defendant’s motion to dismiss the traffic citation for violating Defendant’s equal protection and due process rights is affirmed.”

The City sought review by the Florida Supreme Court, which had mandatory appellate jurisdiction under the Florida Constitution because the Fourth DCA had declared a state statute invalid or unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court agreed with the county court and the Fourth DCA that the unequal treatment of short-term automobile renters under the 2012 statute bore no rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose, where the various kinds of drivers were similarly situated and their red-light violations were all captured the same way on camera. The statute violated the short-term rental driver’s equal protection and due process rights. Thus, the Supreme Court decided that the statute was invalid as applied to short-term renters and that the Fourth DCA had correctly affirmed the order of the county court granting the motion to dismiss the traffic citation.

This case illustrates the importance of due process and equal protection under the law. It also illustrates one of the few circumstances where a county court’s decision can be appealed directly to the district court of appeal (rather than to a panel of circuit court judges), when a county court’s final order declares a statute unconstitutional. Further, it exemplifies one of the few situations where the Florida Supreme Court does not have discretion to decline review and is required to hear an appeal: when the appellant seeks review of a decision of a district court of appeal declaring a statute invalid.