Houston's City Charter appears to clearly prohibit the collection of so-called "red light camera" fines, yet more than a year after the program ended, Houston city leaders were aggressively seeking nearly $26 million in fines, Local 2 Investigates has learned.
"There is no statute of limitations, we can collect that debt years later," David Feldman, Houston's top city attorney, said.
Feldman said the city has contracted with an outside collection agency to round up fines from nearly 270,000 unpaid red light camera violations.
"It's lawlessness, but no one cares," Paul Kubosh said.
Kubosh and his brothers have aggressively fought against Houston's red light camera program which officially ended in August of 2011.
"These collections are in violation of our own city charter," Kubosh said.
Kubosh referred to the following excerpt in Houston's city charter:
Section 231. Photographic Traffic Signal Enforcement Systems.
The City of Houston shall not use photographic traffic signal enforcement systems to civilly, criminally, or administratively enforce any state law or City ordinance against the owner or operator of a vehicle operated in violation of a traffic control signal, specified by Section 544.007(d) of the Texas Transportation Code, nor shall it collect any money from any recipient of a notice of violation issued, in whole or in part, in connection with the use of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system.
Feldman maintains this amended provision in the charter does not apply to pre-existing laws or contracts and the ban came after the original ordinance and camera contract was in place.
"Otherwise, the amendment would be unconstitutional. You can not pass a law that impairs an existing legal obligation," Feldman said.
This point, however, may not clearly explain why the city is still trying to collect approximately 9,400 fines from red light camera citations issued after the amendment passed by way of public vote.
"You've got to remember at that point in time the judge had declared the charter amendment invalid," Feldman said.
The city's top attorney argues that left the city with the right to collect fines for about six weeks, until the program was finally terminated.
Feldman does acknowledge, through a settlement with the camera company, ATS, the charter amendment was ultimately left in place but only applies "prospectively", or in the future.
Kubosh strongly disagrees with Feldman's reasoning.
"From the time of the passed amendment forward, any type of collections are in strict violation of their own city charter," Kubosh said.
Feldman said people who refused to pay red light camera tickets could expect to have their credit dinged.
Up until the day Local 2 Investigates visited downtown municipal court, signage still pointed violators to a room where tickets could be disputed. But, in reality, that mechanism is no longer in place. The signs have since been removed.
Presently, the only option to fight a red light ticket in Houston is to take the matter up in civil court, which could be costly and time consuming.
"It could take eight years. They're getting away with it and no one cares," Kubosh said.
The city still owes nearly $1.5 million of a $4.79 million settlement with the camera company, American Traffic Solutions.