LAFAYETTE — The first trickle has begun in what’s expected to be a flood of lawsuits to collect delinquent fines from the city’s traffic camera enforcement program.
City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert said he filed three lawsuits this week in Lafayette City Court to recover money from two drivers and one company, each owing between $1,000 and $3,000 in unpaid traffic camera fines.
A group of some 40 to 50 private attorneys working for a cut of the fines they recover are prepared to file another 1,900 cases, Hebert told City-Parish Council members Tuesday in an update on the collection effort.
“That’s just the first batch,” he said, commenting that he was unsure how many cases might ultimately be filed.
Hebert did not have numbers Tuesday evening for how much money is at stake, but according to figures from early last year, the amount was at more than $2 million.
Most drivers with delinquent fines owe less than $1,000, but Hebert said one case targeted for litigation involves a company owing about $46,000.
City-parish officials have talked for several years about going after drivers who have long ignored the traffic camera fines, and the lawsuits initially were planned to start last summer after the end of an amnesty period in which drivers could avoid litigation by paying old fines minus late penalties.
The amnesty period ended June 30, and Hebert said Tuesday, it took longer than expected to iron out the logistics.
The three lawsuits filed this week will serve as test cases to see how the novel litigation plays out in the local court system, he said.
There was a hiccup on Tuesday as some council members questioned a decision by the legal department to seek fines owed beyond a three-year window.
Councilmen William Theriot and Jared Bellard said they were under the impression the enforcement program the council approved called for pursuing only delinquent fines from traffic camera tickets issued over the past three years.
Hebert had told council members last year that local law seemed to bar pursuing fines outside a three-year window, but he said upon more careful review of the law, he believes the statute of limitations is 10 years rather than three.
“We determined in looking back at it that we were not correct,” Hebert said.
Bellard said he is opposed to pursuing fines further back than three years because that was the time frame discussed at prior public meetings. Some drivers might have blown off the amnesty period, believing they were in the clear with no violations in the past three years, he said.
“Shouldn’t we have notified them to say it’s different now than what we said at the council meeting?” Bellard said.
Hebert said drivers who have received no citations within the past three years will not face a lawsuit.
But under the current strategy, he said, drivers with at least $125 in outstanding fines over the past three years could be subject to a lawsuit for everything they owe since the traffic camera program began in 2007.
“If you haven’t had any in three years, the trigger is not going to be pulled,” Hebert said.
The council is set to revisit the issue in the coming weeks to clarify precisely what the time limit should be on the violations. However, it was clear at Tuesday’s meeting that some councilmen agreed with Hebert’s current strategy of going back to 2007 to pursue everything that’s owed by drivers who continue to receive multiple violations.
“If you stay hot on the radar, I don’t mind going to get you,” Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux said.
Hebert said the lawsuits will be put on hold until the issue is resolved.
Lafayette’s traffic cameras take pictures of the vehicle and license plate when a driver runs a red light or speeds through a monitored intersection. The alleged violator is mailed a citation.
The traffic camera citation is a civil violation, so violators don’t face jail, criminal fines or a revoked license.
In the past, some unpaid traffic camera tickets had been turned over to collection agencies, but that strategy had limited success.