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Fixes for flawed red light camera law are under way, state senator says

ST. PETERSBURG — Even as public officials tout red-light cameras as a safety measure, they admit drivers are being treated unfairly by the programs.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said Tuesday they will consider making changes to protect drivers who receive the $158 violations.

"I want to make sure Florida's red-light laws are clear, concise and give Floridians all the protections given under the laws," said Brandes, who voted against the law while in the House.

The St. Petersburg Republican, who chairs the Committee on Transportation, said he expects several senators to file bills to fix flaws in the 2010 law that authorized red-light cameras.

Foster and Brandes responded to a litany of complaints levied by Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke, who is urging six Pinellas cities to stop issuing violations until problems are fixed.

Burke cited the way drivers receive tickets, the way fines increase if not paid within 30 days and how tickets are sent to vehicle owners, not drivers. There is no way for a driver to challenge a ticket until after the fine jumps from $158 to $264.

Burke also thinks it's unfair that drivers of rental cars must pay the higher fine because they don't get them in time. The violations are first sent to rental car companies.

Foster said he is open to making changes and will seek input from city staffers: "Maybe there are some things we can do internally."

Burke sent letters to court clerks in Hillsborough, Sarasota, Leon, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward, Orange and Pasco counties. He also notified the Florida County Clerks and Comptrollers group, which referred the matter to its legislative committee.

Pasco Clerk of the Circuit Court Paula O'Neil favors the cameras for safety but said night-court hearings have jumped 30 percent from processing 13,000 violations.

"It is a big impact on our office," she said.

A big complaint in Sarasota County centers on drivers learning about the tickets after it's too late to pay the lower fine of $158.

"It has challenges," said Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Rushing. "Anytime you have unhappy customers you have an increased workload."

The numbers also are hard to track, because cities count every violation notice sent to drivers. Counties only process violations that aren't paid in time and turn into actual traffic citations.

For example, Pinellas County processed a total of 17,032 citations between October 2011 and September 2012. The figures don't include any citations from Oldsmar and Clearwater.

During the cameras' first year of operation in St. Petersburg, 36,185 drivers were issued violations for running red lights between November 2011 and October 2012.

Matt Florell, a St. Petersburg business owner and frequent camera critic, said he found more than 1,200 citations that were issued to rental cars.

Council member Wengay Newton wants the group to discuss Burke's moratorium request Thursday in a workshop and then take action next week during a regular meeting.

The council, Newton said, needs to act to ensure fairness for citizens.

The group can't order changes to the program, but members do have the power to end the contract with the Arizona vendor who provides the cameras, effectively killing the program.

"I'm not going to sit back and let the mayor study this anymore," Newton said.

Burke has an idea to solve some problems for clerks.

In the letter to the trade group, he wondered if cities would agree to give $15 of each violation to clerk's offices so the extra work doesn't impact their budgets.

"Cities should not be in opposition to this since they repeatedly tell their citizens red-light cameras are to increase safety, not to collect revenue," Burke wrote.

Spring Hill resident Richard Scholl only wants an extension.

A camera in Port Richey busted him for running a red light this month.

Scholl isn't trying to skirt the fine, but the 68-year-old asked if he could pay the fine in two payments since he lives on a fixed income.

He can't.

"To me, that's terribly wrong," Scholl said. "You have no legal rights with this."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

.Fast facts

Flaws in the red-light camera law

What's wrong with the red light camera law?

Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke said red light camera programs are unfair to residents for these reasons:

• Unlike tickets issued by law enforcement officers, camera tickets are not issued at the time of the incident.

• The fine is $158. If not paid within 30 days, cities no longer accept the payment. The violation is then in limbo for about 30 days until it becomes a Uniform Traffic Citation.

• Drivers cannot challenge the $158 ticket in court until it becomes a Uniform Traffic Citation, which increases the fine to $264.

• Registered vehicle owners receive violations, regardless of who was driving. The owner can sign an affidavit naming the driver. That driver will not get a chance to pay the $158 violation. Instead, the person automatically receives the $264 fine.

• Drivers of rental cars pay the $264 fine since the companies receive the violations as owners.

Fixes for flawed red light camera law are under way, state senator says 02/26/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 11:18pm]

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