NEW PORT RICHEY — Even the man who came to defend the law admitted it wasn't popular.
"People don't like red light camera ticket laws," said Assistant Attorney General Bob Dietz.
Dietz argued in favor of the controversial law that allows owners to be fined if cameras catch their vehicles running traffic lights. "That's not what we're here about today," Dietz said. "We're here about whether the law can be held constitutional."
At the other table sat Tom Filippone, wearing his American flag necktie adorned with a bald eagle. A year ago, a camera caught his Nissan Altima going through a red light on U.S. 19 in Port Richey. After that his car was photographed a second time at another intersection.
The 45-year-old former New Jersey lawyer did what many others only wish they could. He represented himself and got County Judge Anne Wansboro to dismiss his first case by ruling the law unconstitutional. Wansboro's Feb. 17 order drew the attention of the state attorney general, who showed up Tuesday to argue that it be set aside.
"I really feel in my heart I feel this is wrong," Filippone told the Tampa Bay Times. He even hired his own court reporter for the three-hour hearing. "I'm going to take this as far as I need to go. I feel like I'm representing the citizens of Florida."
At stake are millions in revenue for local governments if the law, which invokes a civil penalty, is eventually overturned by a court with statewide authority. So far, rulings have been mixed. Last year, three Hillsborough judges ruled that the county and Temple Terrace are using valid methods of enforcing tickets and collecting fines.
Wansboro listened to arguments Tuesday, but said a ruling would come later. She denied an oral request from Filippone to order all red light cameras in Port Richey turned off immediately. Sharing the bench was County Judge Candy VanDercar, who had used Wansboro's order in dismissing a similar case against Jeffrey Tetlow, a personal injury attorney from Port Richey. She also postponed a ruling.
"In North Korea or Iran they may use red light cameras but they don't have what we have protecting us — the U.S. Constitution," said Filippone, who argued that by holding the vehicle owner liable regardless of who was driving, the law puts the burden of proof on the defendant.
He said citations arrive in the mail 10 days after the alleged offense "so it's difficult if not impossible to determine who (the driver) is," he said. "You're guilty if you can't name someone else."
Dietz argued that Wansboro's ruling was invalid as the Constitution requires the state attorney general's office to be notified whenever a statute's constitutionality is being challenged.
Tetlow and Filippone said the state was represented during the hearing by a traffic officer, who didn't object to their motions to dismiss.
"The city of Port Richey or New Port Richey could have chosen to have a city attorney there to prosecute these cases," Tetlow said.
Dietz countered that the traffic officer is not an attorney for the state. "He's happens to be a witness who comes in," he said.
As for the burden of proof, Dietz said that still lies with the state as the law requires only that prosecutors prove who the vehicle's owner is. The owner is responsible, according to the law, no matter who is driving.
"The name of the driver is irrelevant," he said. "It's a vicarious liability."
Dietz said lawmakers have drawn many classifications that are "harsh," such as enhanced penalties for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a church.
"These statutes have been found constitutional," he said. "Holding an owner responsible is rational. Owners will take more care in lending their cars."