I-Team finds more school zone cameras ticketed drivers unfairly, this time in east Atlanta

Ivan DeQuesada received a ticket for speeding above 25 miles per hour near Drew Charter School just before 5 p.m. on a Friday, making him eligible for a refund. (FOX 5)

If you paid a ticket for speeding on Memorial Drive near Drew Charter School, you may be owed your money back. 

A FOX 5 I-Team investigation found automatic traffic cameras set up there have been ticketing drivers improperly, citing them for speeding in a 25 mile-per-hour school zone during times when school zone lights had already stopped flashing. 

With the orange lights not blinking, drivers following signs in the area would believe the speed limit was 35.

Atlanta Public Schools confirmed the discrepancy and said drivers unfairly ticketed will receive refunds. 

A spokesman also acknowledged the school system has been aware of the flasher problem since late November, but the spokesman did not directly address a question about why officials didn’t adjust or turn off the cameras that photograph license plates and slap tickets on car owners.

The automated school speed zone cameras on Memorial Drive are managed by Arizona-based Verra Mobility, which contracts with Atlanta Public Schools. (FOX 5)

The I-Team analyzed citation data obtained through a Georgia Open Records Act request and found that, over a seven-month period, the error impacted thousands of people traveling along the busy thoroughfare – with 4,460 citations issued during times when the flashers could have confused drivers.

The data did not include names of persons ticketed, so it’s unclear how many people received first-time citations for $75 or second-time-or-more citations for $125. But the total amount in fines improperly collected likely ranges from about $350,000 to $500,000.

This makes the third time the FOX 5 I-Team has uncovered school zone cameras issuing bogus tickets in metro Atlanta, after finding similar issues last school year in Jonesboro and Riverdale

The latest investigation started after some drivers reported being ticketed for doing nothing wrong.

Ivan DeQuesada, who lives nearby in east Atlanta, received a $75 citation in the mail for going 39 in a 25-mile-per hour zone at 4:52 p.m. on a Friday in March.

"I thought about what was happening that day. I remembered what I was doing, and then I thought, ‘Man, I don’t remember that school zone light being on,’" DeQuesada said. "So I asked my neighbors, and then I was shocked to find out that several neighbors also got tickets, and they were kind of unexpected for the same reasons." 

Neighbors James Murphy (left) and Ivan DeQuesada (right) told the FOX 5 I-Team they're certain the school zone lights weren't flashing when they received tickets in the mail for speeding above 25. (FOX 5)

One of those neighbors, James Murphy, received two tickets from the cameras, and his wife received another.

"They shouldn't be raking in money from dozens of cars driving down the road when there's no light blinking," Murphy said. "It really just seems like a way to try to bring in money, rather than actually increase safety."

Here's the problem: According to an APS schedule of school zone times, the signs outside Drew Charter that say "Speed Limit 25 when flashing" should activate from 7:15 to 8:30 a.m., then from 3:45 to 5 p.m.

But drivers told the I-Team – and APS acknowledged – they’ve been cutting off around 8:15 in the morning and at 4:45 in the afternoon. With the speed cameras set to the proper times, that created two 15-minute windows when thousands of drivers received citations they shouldn’t have.

James Murphy showed an Atlanta Municipal Court judge video proof of a school zone light near Drew Charter School not flashing at 4:49 p.m., prompting the judge to dismiss his ticket. (FOX 5)

Murphy took his fight to Atlanta Municipal Court and found other ticketed drivers had also requested hearings to tell the judge about the same misunderstanding.

"The sign wasn’t flashing," Takeviuas Kelly, of Ellenwood, told Chief Judge Christopher T. Portis. "I’m not the only person here that witnessed the same thing." 

"It wasn’t flashing," Barbara Robinson, of Stone Mountain, said during her hearing. "It was about four-forty-something in the afternoon." 

The judge threw out their citations.

"At the very least that’s confusing," Portis told Murphy, after watching a cell phone video he recorded showing the flashers not blinking at 4:49 p.m. 

Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Christopher T. Portis said of the school zone flashers near Drew Charter School, "at the very least that's confusing." (FOX 5)

What’s also confusing is who's accountable.

A private camera company, Arizona-based Verra Mobility, contracts with Atlanta Public Schools. It’s one of several companies operating in Georgia after the state Legislature approved a bill allowing automated school zone cameras in 2018.

APS runs its school zone speed safety program alongside the Atlanta government. The flashing school zone lights are managed by Atlanta's Department of Transportation, but they’re under the purview of Georgia DOT.

"In the fall of 2023, the beacons at one Atlanta Public School Speed Zone showed a 15-minute time variation," the spokesman said in written answers to questions. "Upon recognition, APS, Atlanta DOT, and Verra Mobility – which manufactured and maintains the cameras – worked collaboratively to correct the discrepancy and rectify the issue."

The spokesman said APS "began requesting this correction in late November."

A spokesman for Atlanta DOT said the agency asked Georgia DOT for authorization to adjust the flasher times on Nov. 26, but approval didn’t come until April 29, and the adjustments were finally made May 2. 

Atlanta DOT also said the flashers have been cutting off at 8:15 and 4:45 for years. The cameras started issuing tickets in September.

The school zone beacons along Memorial Drive near Drew Charter School were adjusted to blink at the correct times on May 2, according to Atlanta's Department of Transportation. (FOX 5)

Neither APS nor Verra Mobility would address the I-Team’s question as to why the cameras didn’t stop ticketing during the five months before the flashing times were corrected.

"The School Zone Speed Safety Program has been a valuable asset that helps ensure the safety of our students and employees and improves driver behavior throughout our school zones," APS said in writing. "We will continue to monitor and improve the program to ensure its success and the safety of our students and employees."

Despite their belief in the cameras, no one from Atlanta Public Schools wanted to appear in front of FOX 5's cameras. The I-Team requested interviews with Atlanta Board of Education Chair Erika Mitchell; board member Ken Zeff, whose district includes Drew Charter School; and APS Chief Operations Officer Larry Hoskins, who oversees the school zone speed safety program.

All three declined.

Takeviuas Kelly, of Ellenwood, received a ticket for going 39 in a 25 mile-per-hour zone at 4:54 p.m. on a Tuesday. He doesn't need a refund, though, because a judge threw out his ticket. (FOX 5)

The spokesman said in writing that roughly 2,000 citations will be refunded, but it’s not clear why that number is less than half the number of tickets reflected in the data. Some accused violators, he said, have already been refunded. And it’s not clear how many people have beaten their tickets in court.

APS did provide an email address to send questions about refunds: oorppd@atlantaga.gov.

So who's eligible for their money back? According to the school system, "Persons who received violations in both directions between 8:16 – 8:30 am and 4:46 – 5 pm will be refunded."

State Rep. Chas Cannon, R-Moultrie, said he plans to re-introduce a bill in next year's Legislative session to ban the automated school zone speed cameras, something retiring Rep. Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn, attempted unsuccessfully this year.

State Rep. Chas Cannon, R-Moultrie, told the FOX 5 I-Team he plans to re-introduce a bill in next year's legislative session to ban automated school zone speed cameras, which have been legal since 2018. (FOX 5)

Cannon said he wants to start a conversation and hopefully meet in the middle with those supporting the cameras. He said he’s mindful of pedestrian safety concerns and that cities rely on income from the automated cameras.

"I think that's the underlying question," Cannon said. "Are these cameras really for safety or are they for revenue?" 

With the I-Team now finding a third jurisdiction where cameras fined drivers unfairly, Cannon said, "I think in this case, it kind of leans more towards … it's about revenue."