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Florida Supreme Court may settle conflicting rulings on red light cameras

Camera data resulted in more than 960,000 tickets last year in Florida, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles says.   

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times (2009)

Camera data resulted in more than 960,000 tickets last year in Florida, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles says. 

TAMPA — The cities of Aventura and Hollywood are separated by just a 5-mile stretch of U.S. 1 in South Florida.

Nonetheless, appellate courts have ruled that Aventura can use cameras to catch red-light runners while Hollywood's cameras were declared unlawful and taken down.

Those starkly conflicting opinions likely mean the future of red-light camera programs, including those in Tampa, Hillsborough County and Clearwater, will now be decided by the Florida Supreme Court.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday that Aventura's camera program does not break state law and called on the Supreme Court to provide a definitive ruling on the controversial traffic safety programs.

Its decision is at odds with a 2014 ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal that Hollywood illegally delegated law enforcement functions to its camera provider.

A three-judge panel noted the conflict in Wednesday's ruling and said the state's highest court needs to resolve three questions centered on whether cities are letting camera providers determine guilt and issue citations.

Typically, workers with the camera companies review video and photos and refer potential violations to sworn law enforcement officers, who then decide if a citation is warranted by clicking on "Accept."

"Because of the broad public and institutional interest in red- light cameras, we certify three issues to the Florida Supreme Court as having great public importance," the ruling states.

The Supreme Court is not obligated to accept the case but typically takes on legal issues where appellate courts have set conflicting legal precedent.

It's a case that will be watched closely by about 70 Florida cities and counties that have used cameras to collect millions of dollars in fines. A consortium of traffic attorneys who won against Hollywood used their victory as the basis for a class-action lawsuit seeking reimbursement of the $158 citations.

If successful, communities and the state could be forced to pay back millions of dollars to motorists.

Roughly 963,000 tickets were issued in 2015 based on camera data, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The state takes 58 percent of the $158 fine, which in 2015 added up to $54 million.

Concern about the Aventura case led Attorney General Pam Bondi's office to intervene and side with the city. Aventura was appealing against a motorist who overturned his citation in circuit court by bringing up the Hollywood case.

"It's a phenomenal ruling for local governments all over the state that want to keep operating their red-light camera programs," said Ed Guedes, an attorney representing Aventura.

Tampa, which has about 55 cameras monitoring 22 intersections, was among several local municipalities named in the class-action lawsuit.

The lawsuit is on hold while a test case between a motorist and the city of Oldsmar makes its way through the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which may also rule on the legality of camera programs.

Tampa City Attorney Julia Mandell declined to comment on Wednesday's ruling because of pending litigation but said a Supreme Court decision would provide some consistency for local governments.

"It would be important for there to be clarity on this issue," she said.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

Florida Supreme Court may settle conflicting rulings on red light cameras 07/27/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2016 8:25pm]
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