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Brooksville special master denies most red-light camera violation appeals

BROOKSVILLE — Sam Hunter had a date with the Brooksville special master, and he was ready.

A camera set high above a traffic signal at Cobb Road and Cortez Boulevard took a photo that indicated Hunter had run a red light, and he respectfully disagreed.

Hunter had gone back to the scene of the alleged infraction and made a videotape, complete with a timer, that he said clearly shows that the yellow light at the intersection is only on for 3 seconds.

He also brought an article from Car and Driver magazine stating that his 7,000-pound GMC pickup truck traveling at 35 mph, would need 3.7 seconds to come to a complete stop.

He was prepared to argue that attempting to halt his truck on a yellow light would have left it in the middle of the intersection.

In the end, none of it mattered.

Special hearing officer Ken Warnstadt said Hunter's evidence "didn't excuse the violation." He would have to pay the $125 citation along with an extra $50 for challenging the ticket.

Since activating red-light cameras in March at five intersections around the city, Brooksville has handed out more than 3,500 citations to owners of offending vehicles.

The citations carry a fine of $125; camera vendor American Traffic Solutions gets $40, and the city takes the remaining $85.

So far, the majority of the offenders have paid their tickets without a fuss. But each month, at least a handful of people show up at the quasijudicial hearing to plead their case.

They soon realize that getting the citation thrown out is a long shot.

Brooksville's ordinance governing the cameras allows only a narrow number of exemptions. Vehicle owners can win a challenge only if they can prove their vehicle was used without their permission; if they were ticketed for the same offense by a police officer; if they were forced to run the light to comply with other traffic laws or to protect property or a person; or if they can somehow prove the red light signal was not functioning properly.

Warnstadt was hired by the City Council in October to replace Bill Eppley as special master. Unlike Eppley, who resigned partly because he felt the ordinance allowing the cameras was being enforced unfairly, Warnstadt appeared to have no trouble with the program.

On Dec. 29, Warnstadt told the crowd that if they were there to challenge the legality of the ordinance, forget it. That's not what this hearing is about, he said.

About two dozen people then stood up and walked over to a clerk to pay their $125.

If they stayed and contested the citation, Warnstadt said, they would still be out a $50 administrative fee, even if they won their appeal.

That afternoon, just three of the seven people who argued their cases were excused from citations.

Joseph and Penny Musser of Nobleton testified that a broken clutch prevented them from stopping their pickup truck. However, Warnstadt ordered the Mussers to show proof that the truck has since been fixed or face reinstatement of the fine.

A Pasco County woman also was excused after presenting an affidavit from her boyfriend stating that he was driving her truck without her permission on the two occasions that it was caught running red lights. Warnstadt transferred responsibility for the ticket to the boyfriend.

Harold Ross' argument wasn't as convincing.

The owner of a hunting preserve in Inglis, he claimed that a company truck ticketed in downtown Brooksville had been used without his knowledge. He also added that the citation should be thrown out on a technicality because it didn't identify the model of the truck, as is required by the ordinance.

Warnstadt ruled against Ross, saying he hadn't proved his case.

Later, Ross said he intended to appeal the decision and will be looking into joining in a class-action suit against red-light cameras that was started by a South Florida lawyer.

"I'm mad," Ross said afterward.

"The whole thing is unconstitutional because it denies people their right to due process. I'm going to see that it's stopped."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1435.

Brooksville special master denies most red-light camera violation appeals 01/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 8:08pm]
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