St. Petersburg City Council backs cameras at red lights

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council took the first official step toward approving the use of red light cameras with a unanimous vote Thursday.

Council members approved the measure with no discussion. They will take a second and final vote April 1, when the public will have a chance to offer comments on the controversial cameras. They're already in use in Brooksville, Kenneth City, Port Richey, Temple Terrace and Hills­borough County.

"Red light cameras are hot right now because they are so effective," said council member Herb Polson. "Not only do they help reduce crashes, but they are force multipliers. A camera can take the place of three officers. In a time like this, they can really help us save money."

If the council gives final approval to the ordinance on April 1, the city still won't enforce it until state lawmakers decide what to do about the issue.

Why wait until then?

Because state law and recent case law say that cities aren't empowered to use cameras to arrest red light runners. Two opinions by the Florida attorney general concluded that state law doesn't allow it. A South Florida judge also recently ruled against the cameras in Aventura, stating that they override state law.

St. Petersburg hopes one of several bills giving cities the power to install red light cameras gets passed this legislative session.

"If we pass the ordinance, I wouldn't recommend that we put it into effect right away," City Attorney John Wolfe said. "I don't think anyone can say whether it will hold until we know what happens in the Legislature."

Even if state law is changed to allow it, there may be broader legal and political questions to answer. The Minnesota Supreme Court banned the cameras in 2007 because the registered owners of the cars were getting cited, even though they weren't necessarily driving at the time of the infraction.

That's exactly the way it would work in St. Petersburg. The camera would take a photo of the license plate. A traffic officer would review the image, verifying the infraction. A notice would then be sent to the vehicle's registered owner. If an owner isn't behind the wheel at the time of the infraction, that person would have 30 days to file an affidavit declaring as much.

If the owner knows the actual driver, the affidavit must include that person's name, address and driver's license. That person would then get cited. If the car was stolen, the affidavit would need to have the arrest report attached. The violation is considered a noncriminal, civil infraction. Violators would be fined for a nonmoving violation, which means they wouldn't get points taken from their driver's license, but they would get fined $150. If they don't pay within 30 days, collection fees would be tacked onto the fine.

In Missouri, a class action lawsuit has been filed against the city of Springfield. It claims the city must deal with red light tickets through a traditional court system, not handle the tickets through an administrative hearing like the one described in St. Petersburg's ordinance.

Assistant Attorney Mark Winn said he's aware of both cases, but is confident the city could defend the ordinance.

"The Springfield case comes down to due process: Are you giving the driver a chance to challenge the ticket?" Winn said. "And we are. And as far as the Minnesota case goes, in Florida, registered owners of cars get tickets all the time for parking tickets and toll booth running. We're looking at that to make sure that it's adequately addressed and we're being fair. We give them time to appeal to show whether or not they were driving."

Still, more than a dozen lawsuits have been filed statewide, including a class action suit in Tallahassee.

Claims of improving safety aside, some St. Petersburg officials want to have an ordinance in place before a state law is passed so they don't lose the right to keep the fines they collect. Brooksville pocketed $800,000 from cameras at five intersections in eight months.

Yet in several states and cities, the court of public opinion has already ruled against the cameras. Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Wisconsin all ban them.

State Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, is pushing to ban cameras in Florida, calling them a hidden tax.

So far, the proposed ordinance has yet to spark much outrage in St. Petersburg. Mayor Bill Foster's office said it hasn't received any e-mails objecting to the proposed law. Council members received an e-mail in January from an opponent, but that person didn't live in the city.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg City Council backs cameras at red lights 03/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 19, 2010 11:27am]

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