DEERFIELD BEACH — There's no doubt Cheryl Hill's Ford Focus ran a red light last November. A pole-mounted camera captured it sailing right through.
The city of Fort Lauderdale was counting on Hill paying the ticket that arrived in the mail. Red light cameras were to generate $3 million this year for the South Florida city — at $75 a pop.
But those expectations did not consider the likes of Ted Hollander, 41, a Broward-based lawyer who has turned traffic ticket defense into a Porsche-level legal career.
His high-volume firm, the Ticket Clinic, will refund its $75 fee if it can't beat a red light camera rap. So far he has challenged about 550 tickets in five counties and not lost one.
Hollander and a handful of other lawyers have figured out that when one ticket bites the dust, dozens more can disappear on the same grounds.
Their persistence has thrown an unexpected wrench into South Florida's headlong rush toward red light cameras and could have big implications for Tampa Bay area cities getting into the business.
Pembroke Pines got its first camera in July. At the beginning of this year, the cameras were costing the city money, including $33,000 in legal fees.
Miami-Dade County expected to make $800,000 a month on its 18 cameras that debuted in January. Collections are running one-quarter of that.
Money can be slow to arrive in the first few months as a certain amount of public education is required.
On the other hand, Fort Lauderdale's police chief reported in April that ticket revenues were "drastically'' falling each week as word spreads that judges are dismissing cases.
The city expected each of its six cameras to crank out 13 paying tickets per day, police Chief Frank Adderly told the City Commission. That's now down to five.
Meanwhile, costs are rising.
The city tasked two police aides with viewing the red light videos and approving the fines.
The aides are overwhelmed, spending three days a week either testifying or collecting documentation for court. With only two days left to work on video, they faced a 2,000-case backlog by March, Adderly said. If the city cannot mail citations within 60 days, as the law requires, it may have to dismiss them. Adderly asked for three more aides to keep up — almost one per camera.
Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom says she favors the cameras if someone can prove they save lives, but financially, "it's a boondoggle.''
The city expected to net $3 million after paying employee salaries and the camera vendor.
The current projection is $150,000, and that doesn't count city attorney time in court.
"It was packaged as a revenue generating item,'' Rodstrom said. "Now it appears that it may be costing us resources.''
Enter the prosecutor
Deputy Fort Lauderdale City Attorney Brad Weissman is on a mission, and St. Petersburg, Hillsborough County, Port Richey and other governments that cast their lot with cameras should hope he succeeds.
Weissman, 49, is a former prosecutor who once put murderers in jail. Now he is determined to defeat ticket defense attorneys.
He is Joe Frazier to Ted Hollander's Muhammad Ali. For months, they have swapped blows over law and the rules of evidence.
To win a batch of dismissals, Hollander just needs one flaw in how the police carried out the law. When Weissman cures that problem, Hollander moves on to a new objection.
Think legal Whac-A-Mole.
Tickets get dismissed this week because police aides can't verify their training. Whack! Next week, Weissman schools them on how to testify.
Can't prove the defendant owns the car? Whack! Next week, make sure aides bring a certified copy of vehicle registration.
Computer printout can't prove a citation was mailed? Whack! Summon the camera vendor from Arizona to verify how the system works.
So far, Weissman has not beat Hollander all the way through a trial. But prosecutions are still in their infancy, he cautioned. "My role is to get a workable process that is acceptable to the court.''
With Cheryl Hill's ticket earlier this month, Hollander and Weissman were at it again, their ongoing rivalry in full swing.
At one point Hollander accused Weissman of twisting a rule about prisoner mailings. If anyone should know that rule, Hollander said, it should be a lawyer who tried felony crimes for years.
A few minutes later, Weissman returned the jab: If anyone should understand a point of ticket law, he said, it should be "the master of traffic rules."
"I object,'' Hollander yelled.
"I object, too,'' Weissman countered. "I don't really think he is.''
Mail and hearsay
Cheryl Hill's Ford ran a red light all right, but she never drives it. Her son and his girlfriend use it, but they don't remember who was behind the wheel.
By law, that doesn't matter. Owners are the presumed drivers unless they identify someone else. If they don't do that or pay a $158 fine, they receive an official traffic citation and the fine jumps to $264. Either way, the city collects $75, and the state and county the rest.
"I'm trying to get Ted to beat it for me,'' Hill said recently. "If I can't, I will be responsible and pay the cost. But I am annoyed.''
Hollander spent more than seven hours arguing Hill's case, with more riding on the outcome than his $75 fee. Lawyers, hearing masters and judges in several counties are watching red light camera arguments, and Hollander is at the forefront.
Hill's case got hung up over a battle over the mail.
The law requires that cities deliver citations by certified mail. Hollander argued the city can't prove it was delivered.
If a police officer writes a red light citation, he hands a ticket to the driver, then comes to court and testifies. But with the camera, American Traffic Solutions, an Arizona-based vendor, processes the video and paperwork.
Fort Lauderdale police aides can testify that they reviewed the video, but they have no personal knowledge of the citation mailing, Hollander said. Anything they say about that is inadmissible hearsay.
Weissman disagreed. It's ludicrous to suggest that red light runners must personally receive the citation, he said. Even if the city asked for a return receipt, people could avoid accepting the mail. Third parties could intercept it and throw it away — say a son who doesn't want his mother to know he ran a red light.
Delivering mail "is not something the state or municipalities can control,'' Weissman argued, "short of going to the home, beating down the door and slapping it in their hands.''
Broward County Judge Steven DeLuca ultimately agreed with the city on that issue.
Hollander was undeterred. While fighting that, he unearthed another means of attack.
The law requires the city to give people 30 days to pay after their first notice of violation.
"The same business records the city fought so hard to get into evidence showed that people weren't given the full 30 days to pay," he said.
Hollander has argued that cities must follow normal rules of evidence. If that fails, he will challenge the constitutionality of the camera statute itself.
He believes the way some cities are paying camera vendors runs afoul of the state law that prohibits vendors from getting paid on a per-ticket basis.
He also believes camera tickets violate the constitutional right of equal protection because people are treated differently for the same offense.
When officers write red light tickets, the fine is $264, plus three points on the driver's license. Offenders caught on camera get no points and pay only $158.
"If someone violates a law and an officer witnesses it, they should get a ticket," he said. "But when (cities) are just putting up cameras to generate funds, that's when the problems start and it's not really about safety."
Judge Robert Lee, who supervises Broward traffic court, looks forward to a day when camera cases become routine.
The legal battles turned out to be more complicated than anyone foresaw, he said. "We probably will be bouncing back and forth between the trial court and the appellate court for a couple of years."
The court system earns no money from the camera tickets and dockets are growing geometrically. If the trend continues, Lee said camera cases "could exceed all other traffic tickets combined.''
Here in the Tampa Bay area, litigation so far has been limited.
The Ticket Clinic has Tampa lawyers, but until recently they often advised clients to pay the $158 fine.
That changed earlier this month when Ticket Clinic lawyer Jeff Reynolds began filing defenses in Hillsborough and Pinellas. He plans to use the arguments Hollander developed in South Florida.
"We don't want people running red lights,'' said Reynolds. "But if we are successful in making municipalities prove these things in the way the rules of evidence dictate you should, it's going to be a lot more expensive than one guy watching a video and coming to court and pushing a button.''
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.