ST. PETERSBURG — Joe Vitatoe didn't know the law was on his side when a red-light camera caught him rolling slowly through an intersection in January.
He paid the $158 fine — but now regrets writing the check.
He learned Wednesday that St. Petersburg's Chief Assistant Attorney Mark Winn used vague wording in a state law last week to beat a violation at the same intersection.
"I wish I would have known that," Vitatoe said. "I don't know the law."
Still, the adage about city hall always winning isn't true when it comes to fighting violations in Pinellas County. Some motorists are winning cases against the six cities that issue camera tickets.
In the last 13 months, 4,141 drivers took their cases to court instead of paying the $158 fine.
Court records show:
• Magistrates dismissed 1,368 violations — 33 percent — for various reasons like officers not showing up to testify.
• Sixty-two drivers were found not guilty like Winn. It's unclear what the basis for those rulings was, however, because the court only tracks outcomes.
• Drivers found guilty: 500. Those motorists then had to pay a $264 fine, plus court costs.
The gamble of going to court might not be for every driver. Magistrates withheld rulings on 2,211 violations, but in those cases the drivers could still be assessed court costs up to $500. Costs vary on each case.
Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke, who recently urged six Pinellas cities to stop issuing camera violations until flaws with the program are fixed, isn't surprised that so few drivers fight the tickets.
He cited the time it takes to go to court and the possibility of paying a higher fine if drivers lose.
"Many people feel the odds are stacked against them," Burke said.
Many drivers might not know about the defense Winn used.
Florida's red-light camera law allows courts to find drivers not guilty of violations if they make a right-hand turn in a careful and prudent manner in intersections where right-hand turns are allowed.
Vitatoe's and Winn's violations are similar.
The cameras clocked both men driving 12 mph while making a right-hand turn at 38th Avenue N and 66th Street N. Their cars' brake lights were on as each made the turn, no traffic was approaching and no pedestrians were in the crosswalk.
Winn used the camera video to support his defense to show he slowed even more when going around the corner. A magistrate found him not guilty.
Vitatoe, 63, expected he'd lose in court since the violation says he broke the law. He wonders why the tickets don't mention the exception for careful and prudent right-on-red turns.
"I can't afford an attorney," he said. "I couldn't take a chance. What else could I do?"
Help could be on the way.
Bills filed in the Florida Legislature could reform the camera program. For now, the bills seek to make it easier to contest red-light camera violations by putting a greater burden of proof on governments. The bills also would ban the practice of ticketing motorists who turn right on red.
Mark Puente can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.