A red light camera at Indian Head Road and Jericho...

A red light camera at Indian Head Road and Jericho Turnpike in Commack in 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

Suffolk County lacks the legal authority to charge the $30 administrative fee it tacks onto the $50 fine for motorists found guilty of red-light camera violations, a state Supreme Court justice ruled. 

The decision this week by Justice David T. Reilly found Suffolk's imposition of the fee unconstitutional because the state program precludes the county from charging more than the violation fee to offenders.

Suffolk's "imposition of a monetary liability for vehicle owners in excess of $50.00, or $75.00 with a statutory authorized late fee, for a red light violation issued through the Red Light Safety Program is void as a matter of law … ," Reilly wrote in an opinion signed Monday.

However, Reilly did not issue a final ruling in the case. He said the "determinations made by this Court raise serious fiscal implications for the County of Suffolk … ," and "defendants must be afforded a further opportunity to be heard on this important matter." 

Robert McGrath of Mount Sinai in 2016 filed the class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the administrative fee.

David Raimondo, McGrath's attorney, said he was "pleased the judge saw the law as we did as an unlawful and unauthorized taking of ticket holders' money." 

Suffolk "called it an administration fee but in reality it was a tax," said Raimondo, who is based in Lake Grove.

Suffolk County spokesman Derek Poppe said: "We are appealing the decision and reviewing any potential impact on revenue."

Red-light camera tickets first were issued in Suffolk in 2010, carrying a $50 fine and a $25 charge for tickets paid late.

The administrative fee was added in 2013 and has since generated about $50 million in revenue for the county, Raimondo said. 

Suffolk, which is projecting a budgetary shortfall this year in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, gets more than $20 million annually in revenues from red-light cameras, county officials have said.

The use of cameras to prevent motorists from running red lights has been a contentious issue since the program was approved in 2009.

Supporters of the program, including the administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, say it has reduced the number of serious crashes, including side-impact collisions and fatal accidents.

Critics have complained the cameras slow traffic and the fees are a burden on the low-income and elderly residents. 

Due largely to the pandemic, Suffolk will have at least a $100 million shortfall in sales tax revenues this year, according to the county legislature’s budget review office.

The county also expects shortfalls in revenues from other traffic tickets and from Jake’s 58 Hotel & Casino in Islandia, which is closed.

Legislative Minority Leader Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said he believed appealing Reilly's ruling would be "an exercise in futility," and said the county's legal department should settle the case.

“For those who paid the fees obviously this is a great win," Cilmi said. "For the county that has collected these fees over the course of the last seven years it is a disaster.”

A similar lawsuit is pending in Nassau County, which collects a $55 public-safety fee and a $45 driver-responsibility fee on top of the $50 fine for violations, bringing the total to $150.

With Rachelle Blidner

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