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Legal challenges to red-light cameras failing around Tampa Bay

TAMPA — With St. Petersburg and Tampa adding to Tampa Bay's red-light camera ranks, initial court challenges have so far met with little success.

Three Hillsborough judges recently ruled that the county and Temple Terrace are using valid methods of enforcing tickets and collecting fines.

Pinellas traffic Judge Ben Overton has scheduled a hearing for Friday, telling a prominent ticket defense firm to raise its objections to the camera law all at once, rather than piecemeal.

This judicial approach stands in stark contrast to drawn-out and conflicting rulings in South Florida, which have led to dozens of court hearings and mass dismissal of tickets.

Charles Tennito, vice president of camera vendor American Traffic Solutions, said ticketing in the Tampa Bay area is now on solid legal footing.

"As judges become more comfortable with the evidence needed to prosecute," Tennito said, "it's becoming more and more clear that not only are cameras constitutional, but that the legislation gives very clear guidance as to what is and what isn't a defense."

Jeff Reynolds of the Ticket Clinic in Tampa said the law firm plans to appeal the Hillsborough rulings and in the meantime still has avenues to challenge tickets.

Among other things, he said, some of the firm's clients were not given 30 days' notice that someone driving their car ran a red light, as the law requires.

"We are disappointed in the rulings," Reynolds said, "but we are going to move forward from here."

Reynolds presented his arguments this summer in a joint hearing of Hillsborough's three traffic court judges, Joelle Ann Ober, Richard Weis and Christine Vogel.

Among his arguments:

Speedy-trial rules

When a camera catches a car running a red light, the registered owner is mailed a "notice of violation." Car owners must pay a $154 fine or sign an affidavit identifying someone else as the driver. Otherwise, they receive a Uniform Traffic Citation and the fine jumps to $264, depending on the jurisdiction.

Reynolds argued that speedy-trial rules should begin with the notice of violation, which would make it more difficult for municipalities to prosecute within legal deadlines. The judges said the clock starts when the official traffic citation is mailed.

Evidence of mailing

ATS oversees the mailing of infractions in both Hillsborough and Pinellas. Government officials should not be allowed to testify that notices and citations were mailed properly because they have no firsthand knowledge, Reynolds argued. Anything a police officer or county employee might say about the mailings is hearsay.

Ober and Vogel ruled that defendants carry the burden of proof. If they want to claim they did not receive a notice or citation, let them swear to that under oath.

Weis ruled that the government bears the burden of proof but that Florida law allows hearsay for some business records and that ATS officials have adequately testified that their records are reliable.

Reynolds said he plans to ask Weis to require ATS officials, who are based in Phoenix, to testify in every case. Evidence presented against one defendant cannot be used against another defendant, he said.

Admissibility of video

If a surveillance camera records someone robbing a convenience store, prosecutors cannot just replay the video for the jury. The store owner or someone with firsthand knowledge must testify that the video is valid and how it made its way from the store to the courtroom.

Reynolds argued that the same holds true for red-light cameras, which presumably would force expensive, case-by-case testimony from an ATS official.

All three judges disagreed, saying Florida's red-light camera law makes video admissible without corroborating testimony.

Florida passed the law more than a year ago, but no cases have progressed through a full appeal, so one judge's ruling applies only to his or her court.

In Winter Haven, for example, Polk County Judge Timothy Coon threw out nine cases in October, ruling that video and photographs must be validated by firsthand testimony.

"The officer admits he was not at the scene when they were taken," Coon wrote, "and as a result cannot testify as to whether they fairly and accurately portray the scene."

Legal challenges to red-light cameras failing around Tampa Bay 11/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 2, 2011 10:32pm]

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