Legal Challenges Could Turn Off Florida’s Red Light Cameras

September 1, 2009

Last year, Pembroke Pines turned on its first red-light camera. Across South Florida, other cities followed.

But now critics — and lawsuits — are questioning whether the cameras pass legal muster. Several Florida cities, including Aventura and Miami Gardens, face lawsuits challenging the cameras and the hefty fines they bring.

The cases vary, and no one has declared victory just yet. But the suits focus on one key argument: Traffic laws must be uniform across the state, and city-by-city camera laws violate that principle. The lawsuits also raise concerns about due-process rights and question why something that cities describe as a code violation seems so much like a traffic ticket.

Pembroke Pines commissioners discussed the emerging legal challenges recently, then persuaded their red-light vendor to help back them up should a legal action occur. American Traffic Solutions agreed to meet any financial obligations with a lien on its equipment and up to $100,000.

Then commissioners went ahead with plans for five more cameras.

And why not? The cameras, pitched as a safety device, are also moneymakers. In the typical ATS system in Florida, the vendor receives a cut that ranges from $17.50 to $47.50 per ticket. Cities keep the rest.

In Pines, the tickets run $125 apiece. In some other cities, the fines escalate after repeat offenses.

A Pembroke Pines camera at Pines Boulevard and Southwest 129th Avenue has issued more than $100,000 in fines since March. In Aventura, five cameras have triggered more than $1 million in fines since October. Fort Lauderdale hopes to collect $1.8 million from cameras it has proposed.

Local leaders insist it’s about safety, and that the dollars are an added bonus _ that happen to come during difficult financial times.

“If we don’t protect our residents from accidents at red lights, then who is going to do that?” said Aventura Mayor Susan Gottlieb.

She added: “You never know when you go to court what will happen. But that doesn’t mean that everything that doesn’t hold up is wrong.”

Any uncertainty could be resolved if the Legislature legalizes the cameras. Lawmakers tried to do that this year, but the legislation failed.

Cities considered red-light cameras for years but hesitated amid legal concerns.

In 2005, Pembroke Pines City Attorney Sam Goren asked then-Attorney General Charlie Crist for his office’s opinion. Crist said local governments had the right to set up cameras, take pictures and let drivers know when they had run red lights.

That part of the opinion is one that cities often cite when defending cameras.

But the second half of Crist’s opinion said cities couldn’t issue red-light tickets without changes to state law.

That part of the opinion is often cited by camera foes.

Cities maneuvered around the disparate points by making red-light-running a code violation — and installing equipment on land not controlled by the state. Pembroke Pines activated its first camera in April 2008; it gave out warnings until March. Since then, it has issued more than 900 citations.

On Sept. 1, a similar warning period will end in North Miami Beach. The city had two cameras installed — one at Northeast 10th Avenue and North Miami Beach Boulevard, the second at Northeast 18th Avenue and 163rd Street.

But as more people get cited, some get angry. In Aventura, Richard Masone turned to traffic lawyer Bret Lusskin, who runs the Ticket Cricket in Hallandale Beach.

“It’s blatant disregard for Florida law,” said Lusskin, who is challenging citations in the northeast Miami-Dade city. His case is scheduled for a hearing in November.

Critics say the state’s uniform traffic code ensures that drivers know the rules of the road, whether behind the wheel in Miami-Dade or Volusia counties. But the cameras, lawyers contend, violate that objective.

Another concern: Typically, state law says the driver gets the ticket. Because red-light cameras snap pictures of the license plate, the car’s owner is cited.

There are exceptions to the cite-the-driver rule _ but those exceptions are in state law, the one that doesn’t include red-light cameras.

Cities have their own data backing up the cameras. They insist that their code is strictly a code, and that the cameras aren’t on state land.

They also defend the citation process as fair.

Generally, the vendor gathers the information and turns it over to local law enforcement to review the evidence, said Josh Weiss, spokesman for Arizona’s American Traffic Solutions. The data includes two pictures, one of the vehicle before the intersection and a second of the car in the intersection.

Another camera captures a 12-second video of the intersection to give the events context. A local law enforcement officer can see whether outside factors made an infraction necessary and decide not to issue a citation, Weiss said.

Afterward, drivers can view all the evidence online before challenging the fine. But a loss in Florida typically includes a $50 administrative fee.

In all, ATS says it has been hired as a red-light vendor by about 20 South Florida cities, though not all of those systems are in place yet. Others, such as Miami Beach, have chosen a different vendor.

West Palm Beach lawyer Jason Weisser has filed recent lawsuits against Orlando, Miami Gardens and Aventura. “It’s all about the money on these things,” Weisser said of cities’ traffic cameras.

Another lawyer, Jack Townsend, brought a case near Tampa in Temple Terrace. Both Townsend and Weisser’s litigation seek class-action status.

“There will be a lot more photo enforcement in our lifetime,” Townsend said. “But in Florida, in my humble opinion, there has to be state statute setting it up. If there isn’t, then it’s premature and they should not be doing this.”

Meanwhile, Pembroke Pines will push ahead with more lights.

“And,” Commissioner Angelo Castillo said, “I think we should redouble our efforts in Tallahassee.”

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