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Amy Divine, a Madison, Miss., resident, opened a mail envelope on July 1, 2022, and discovered an official-looking ticket from the Ocean Springs Police Department claiming she owned a vehicle that passed through the city on March 22, 2022, “without vehicle insurance.”
The letter, dated April 4, 2022, indicated that it was a “Final Notice Before Court Appearance” and included Ocean Springs Police Chief Mark Dunston’s signature. It indicated that Divine could pay $300 to avoid a driver’s license suspension. She paid the money.
Divine’s attorneys, Brian K. Herrington and Rogen K. Chhabra, from Chhabra Gibbs & Herrington PLLC,are disputing the practice’s legitimacy. In a court filing in the U.S. Southern District of Mississippi on Sept. 1, 2022, they argue that the ticket did not come from the City but from a business named Securix, “pretending to be law enforcement” and using cameras “to enforce traffic laws.” The plaintiff alleges that Mississippi Statute prohibits using cameras in traffic law enforcement.
American Digital Security, LLC, finalized a deal to acquire Securix companies in December 2021. Securix has continued to operate by that name, the lawsuit says. Both companies are defendants in the case. American Digital Security, LLC, did not respond to an email request on Sept. 12, 2022, for comment.
This reporter called Securix on Sept. 12, 2022, and the receptionist linked him with Jonathan Miller. “He is the manager, the owner,” the receptionist said.
In the Monday interview, Miller told the Mississippi Free Press, “I am just one of the officers of the company,” while explaining that “there is no basis for the lawsuit whatsoever.”
Documents on the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website show Miller as the registered agent and partner with Michael E. McGrey of Securix LLP, which registered in Mississippi in September 2021. The company was formed in 2018 and incorporated in Delaware, with a principal office address in Atlanta, Ga., the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website shows. The plaintiff is also suing Missouri-based Securix LLC.
A 2019 press release announcing Securix’s adoption of new technology in its operation described Miller as the CEO and Securix as “owner of the twenty-seven state-based Public Safety Companies in the U.S.”
“SECURIX’s use of the LPR-2 (license plate readers) will mark the first time REKOR products will be utilized in the detection of uninsured vehicles, a huge and growing problem in the U.S. which is otherwise rarely detected,” the report said. “In addition to providing a complete solution to the uninsured vehicle problem in the U.S., SECURIX also enhances officer safety and efficiency, is violator-funded with no cost to agencies, is entirely non-invasive and respectful and, enables governments to recover revenues to enable other worthwhile community programs.”
The plaintiff is making “a huge mistake,” Miller said in the interview with the Mississippi Free Press.
“Everything they’ve said in the lawsuit is nonsense; there is no basis in law for the lawsuit at all,” he added. “The people involved don’t know what they’re saying, they don’t know what they’re doing. Everything they said is wrong.”
“That’s the only statement I’m going to make, and I think that the lawsuit will get resolved very quickly because, again, everything they said is wrong. Everything!”
Attorneys Herrington and Chhabra shared a different view and asked the court to “certify the case as a class action.”
“Defendant tickets the registered owner of the vehicle without regard to who was driving and with no analysis on whether the driver was lawfully insured,” they wrote in the complaint.
Securix, on its website, explained that it offers a system that provides “a complete solution to the uninsured vehicle problem in the U.S. but also enhances officer safety and efficiency, has no cost to agencies and yet, enables governments to recover revenues and enable worthwhile programs,” the company said. “All other systems have only unreliable data or are limited to a single state or insurer.”
“SECURIX’s InsureNet System, (National Vehicle Insurance Status System), was developed to provide a full-featured, complete solution to the massive problems involving uninsured vehicles.” it added. “Its focus is on solving the problem and reducing the burden on the law-abiding, not on incarceration and penalties.”
The site includes links to its New York and Missouri companies, although neither mentions license-place reading for vehicle insurance enforcement purposes.
“The System does not assume guilt and is incapable of identifying any driver,” Securix continued. “It provides an interactive diversion program and,(sic) an easy, inexpensive path to compliance and success for violators.”
Herrington explained to the Mississippi Free Press in a phone interview on Sept. 7, 2022, how he believes the Securix system operates, based on his evaluation.
“What they use is a technology called automated license plate readers, ALPRs, to take computerized images of license plate and then the Securix system runs that license plate through various databases to ascertain whether the vehicle has a vehicle insurance and if it doesn’t, Securix will mail a, quote, ticket, unquote, to the registered owner of the vehicle,” he said. “And the ticket looks like an official document from the city—for our client, the document says it’s from the Ocean Springs Police Department; it doesn’t mention Securix’s name anywhere on the document.”
“In a nutshell, the City is trying to sub out its uninsured motorists’ enforcement.”
The law firm argues in the lawsuit filing that Miss. Code Ann. § 17-25-19(1)(a) provides the basis for concluding that such a practice was illegal.
“Neither the board of supervisors of any county nor the governing authority of any municipality shall adopt, enact or enforce any ordinance authorizing the use of automated recording equipment or system to enforce compliance with traffic signals, traffic speeds or other traffic laws, rules or regulations on any public street, road or highway within this state or to impose or collect any civil or criminal fine, fee or penalty for any such violation,” the law states.
“Any county or municipality using automated recording equipment or system shall remove the equipment or system before October 1, 2009.”
The lawsuit indicated that Divine’s ticket via mail gave her three options. She could present proof of insurance valid at the time of the supposed violation, pay $300 for entrance into a diversion program or appear in court on a specified date.
The lawsuit acknowledged that state laws require uninsured drivers to pay a fine or have their licenses suspended.
However, it also stated, “There is no statute that allows a person to be cited for simply owning a vehicle that is not registered with liability insurance.”
“The statutes only require that a properly stopped vehicle operator (as opposed to the owner) provide proof of liability insurance coverage for the person operating the vehicle,” it continues. “Defendant takes zero effort to determine who was operating the vehicle for purposes of issuing its Tickets.”
On March 1, 2022, the City of Senatobia Board of Aldermen, according to that day’s meeting minutes, voted to allow Mayor Greg Graves to sign a contract similar to what Ocean Springs has with Securix, as the plaintiff’s filing points out.
Ocean Springs City Attorney Robert Wilkinson (spelled Wilkerson in the minutes) and Frontier Strategies co-owner Josh Gregory made a pitch for Securix that day at the Board of Aldermen’s meeting.
An online Ocean Springs document indicated that Wilkinson is the city’s attorney. A receptionist with the City of Ocean Springs personnel department told the Mississippi Free Press on Sept. 14, 2022, that Wilkinson works at the law firm of Dogan And Wilkinson, PLLC. This reporter left a voice message for him at the company that same day, and he has not returned the call.
Frontier Strategies’ Josh Gregory was an adviser for former Gov. Phil Bryant. His company Frontier Strategies is an advertising, public relations and lobbying firm, which the Northside Sun reported enjoyed upwards of $14.1 million from State of Mississippi contracts from 2009 to 2020. The payments were for a variety of work for state agencies.
Steve Wilson reported in the Sun in 2020 that Frontier’s lobbying/political clients have included U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Cindy Hyde-Smith and Congressmen Gregg Harper and Michael Guest. But, the Sun pointed out, Phil Bryant was Frontier’s largest political client, bringing in $1.365 million for campaign work from 2009 to 2017.
The Senatobia Board of Aldermen’s meeting minutes did not indicate in what capacity Wilkinson was there on March 1, 2022, merely that he was an attorney. A Senatobia City official told the Mississippi Free Press by phone on Sept. 15, 2022, that the program began in August 2022.
Following Wilkinson’s effort in Senatobia, Miss., he was in Columbus at its city council work session on March 31, 2022, also with Gregory. A news report about Wilkinson’s efforts in the Columbus, Miss.-based local newspaper, The Dispatch, indicated that Wilkinson was not only Ocean Springs’ city attorney but was also a legal representative for Securix. The news report used “Wilkinson” and “Wilkerson” interchangeably.
“Attorney Robert Wilkinson, who represents Securix, and who also is the city attorney for Ocean Springs, explained that the system captures tag numbers and compares them to a national insurance database to see if the driver is insured,” The Dispatch said. “Wilkinson explained he has recused himself from any matter involving Securix and Ocean Springs, which uses the program.”
Wilkinson said a police officer gets $25 per hour for officers “who monitor the system and writes the ticket,” and the money from the company and the city share the fee, The Dispatch reported.
Plaintiff’s attorney Herrington said such payments to officers are among the promises the company makes to cities. “Another reason this program just doesn’t pass the smell test (is that) Securix pays the police officers for quote, confirming, unquote, the ticket information,” he told the Mississippi Free Press.
“So their pitch to cities is: ‘We can take the burden of enforcing uninsured motor vehicle statutes away from you. We’ll ease that burden. We’ll do it all. We’ll detect the violations. We will issue the citations; we will collect the money, and we’ll give you a part of it. So not only do we ease your burden, but we make you money.’ That’s their pitch.”
The Dispatch reported that Wilkinson told the Columbus City Council that after paying the fee, “the driver does not have to go to court and gets to keep their driver’s license,” the paper said. “Those who don’t respond to Securix’s letter or who refuse to participate in the diversion program take their chances in the court system.”
The newspaper added that “[i]f they are found guilty, they have to pay a fine and court fees, and their license is suspended and can’t be reinstated until they have proof of insurance and pay a reinstatement fee to the Department of Public Safety, (Wilkinson) said.”
The lawsuit, however, contends that for Divine, “[t]he Ticket provides a July 1, 2022, court date,” “no case was ever docketed with the court.” The lawsuit said she received the letter that same day.
“In other words, the Ticket ‘summons’ Plaintiff to a court date that does not exist,” the legal filing added.
Herrington described the court date Divine received as “bogus” and explained to the Mississippi Free Press what happened when he called Ocean Springs Municipal Court.
“On behalf of our client, I called the municipal court to see if her ticket had actually been docketed with the court, and they told me no, and then they referred me to the phone number for Securix,” he said. “While they didn’t say it was Securix, they just provided me with a phone number to call, and it’s the same number that’s on this ticket and that phone number is created by Securix and their people.”
“The ticket also has a website that allows the person who receives the ticket to pay the fee online; and that website was created and maintained by Securix,” he said.
The Insurance Journal in March 2021 hailed the effectiveness of the Securix system in Ocean Springs, a city of less than 20,000.
Ocean Springs Police Chief Mark Dunston said in the report, “In the last couple months, we have identified close to 6,000 violations.” He also noted that “about 2% of cars so far have been wrongfully identified as not having insurance,” the report added.
Frontier Strategies partner Josh Gregory, whom the paper described as helping with marketing for Securix, told the Columbus City Council that the program “was up and running in Ocean Springs and would have a “soft launch next week in Pearl Miss. (And) Senatobia is starting the program May 1,” the newspaper reported.
City of Pearl official Greg Flynn told the Mississippi Free Press via email on Sept. 14, 2022, that the Rankin County city “haven’t started using this technology, yet.”
Attorney Chhabra said that Securix divides up the proceeds with the City and said the State gets nothing. “They’re splitting it 50-50 with the City, and they’re keeping it out of the court process. By keeping it out of the court process, they are avoiding the payment that is due to the State on any kind of lack-of-insurance infraction,” he said.
“There is a state law that says when a city gets money from a no-insurance ticket, they have to remit a certain portion of that to the state, but by keeping it out of the court and having this illegal process where the criminal and ticketing process is being handled by a private entity, they’re avoiding that and not in a legal way,” Chhabra argued. His position represents one side of a legal dispute.
Herrington, who said Ocean Springs “probably started with the system in February 2022,” told the Mississippi Free Press that the Securix System circumvents the process laid out in the statutes.
“So it removes protection that has been afforded to alleged violators,” he said. “Just by way of the example: the uniform traffic ticket has to be handed to the driver, that’s not done in this case. There has to be some type of probable cause to believe that the driver was operating the vehicle without insurance, that doesn’t occur here. In fact, the Securix system only takes a picture of the license plate and compares that with the database that has the insurance status of the vehicle owner, which may or may not be who the driver was.”
“Had the City (of Ocean Springs) done what it’s supposed to do, the officer who stopped the vehicle for whatever reason, for speeding or running a red light, whatever, would have ascertained the insurance status of the driver, not the registered vehicle owner,” he added.
At the March 1, 2022, City of Senatobia Board of Aldermen’s meeting, Josh Gregory said Ocean Springs had recorded about 5,400 citations using the Securix system.
While reporting on Securix’s operation in Ocean Springs, the insurance journal stated: “Mississippi law prohibits the use of cameras for enforcing traffic laws, such as red light and speeding violations. But statutes do not mention the use of cameras to catch insurance violations, officials said.”
Divine’s lawyers disagree. The lawsuit claims that “Defendant’s website contains many misrepresentations. For example, the site states, ‘The Court Status Diversion program has been reviewed and approved by the State,” they stated.
“The State has done no such thing,” they said. “In fact, state statute prohibits the use of cameras to enforce traffic laws.”
Miller disputed the plaintiffs’ position to the Mississippi Free Press: “Everything they said in a lawsuit is ridiculous. It has no foundation at all, they’re quoting the wrong laws, they’re quoting the wrong references, everything they’re doing, they’re just, to create… there’s nothing to talk about, there’s nothing to discuss because there’s not a single thing they said that’s true, not one single thing is true.”
The lawsuit alleges violations of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. “[D]efendant, acting under color of law, caused Plaintiff and the Class to be treated differently from citizens who were ticketed by municipalities that have not contracted with Defendant,” the filing argues. “Defendant, acting under color of law, treats people differently who own cars that come within view of Defendant’s cameras than people whose vehicle are operating in other areas where Defendant’s cameras do not exist or where Defendant’s cameras have been specifically prohibited by the municipality.”
Chhabra emphasized that the justice system does not allow the court to “pass off their duties to enforce criminal laws onto private companies; there certainly isn’t a system that allows private companies to profit from it,” he said.
“[S]ecurix is running off with the money, and the State isn’t getting anything; that’s a pretty insane problem. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
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FOCUS: 2022 Elections • Housing & Evictions • #MSWelfare Scandal • Jackson Water • Abortion • Race & Racism • Policing • Incarceration