BROOKSVILLE — Brooksville's red-light camera program was dealt a legal blow Friday when a county judge dismissed charges against a Spring Hill man who challenged a citation.
In his ruling, Judge Kurt Hitzemann found defendant Julio Carral not guilty on grounds that some procedures used by the city and its camera vendor to enforce the law and charge violators were improper.
Hitzemann said the city failed to properly notify the vehicle owner of the infraction as required by state law, and also failed to properly deliver the citation to the clerk of court. Probably most importantly, the judge said, the city provided Carral with photographic evidence of his alleged violation that could not be authenticated.
The case marks the first successful legal challenge to the city's red-light camera program since it was implemented in May.
Carral received a citation in the mail in July telling him that his 2005 Lexus sedan was photographed on May 23 running a red light at U.S. 41 and Wiscon Road, on the south side of Brooksville. Instead of paying the $158 ticket, Carral opted to hire Brooksville lawyer Peyton Hyslop to challenge the matter in court.
In his arguments before Hitzemann, Hyslop questioned the validity of the traffic-monitoring devices on several legal grounds, including whether the cameras deny vehicle owners their right to due process. Although the city had provided its own legal counsel at the hearing, Hitzemann said that because a state traffic code was being questioned, the municipality had no legal standing in the matter. The State Attorney's Office declined to get involved.
In his three-page order, Hitzemann said that the city's notice of violation was "inadmissible hearsay" in that the name of the vehicle's owner had not been authenticated on the citation. He also ruled that the city erred by allowing the camera vendor to provide a copy of the citation to the clerk of court's office, rather than doing so itself.
In addition, Hitzemann ruled that photographs and videos taken by the cameras do not meet evidence standards because they cannot be authenticated, and said that "if the Court had not previously found the dismissal of the citation was proper, the evidentiary defect … would have led to a not guilty verdict."
Hyslop said Friday that Hitzemann's ruling could spell a similar fate for other red-light citations should they be challenged on the same grounds.
"If enough of these rulings came down, it would mean the (state) Legislature would have to take a look at tweaking the law," Hyslop said.
In his order, Hitzemann declined to rule on the constitutionality of the state's red-light camera statute, saying that such challenges needed to be in writing and notification provided to the state Attorney General's Office.
Brooksville Police Chief George Turner said Friday he had not seen Hitzemann's order and didn't want to comment on the verdict.
To date, the city's 13 operational cameras have captured more than 5,000 violations.
The city's initial foray into red-light cameras began in 2009. Back then, the program was operated under a city ordinance. The program ended in 2010 after a contract dispute with the camera vendor.
Last year, the City Council voted to reinstate the program and operate it under a new state statute, using Sensys America as its camera vendor.
The $158 citations, which are charged to the owner of the vehicle, earn the state $83 per violation, with the city and the company splitting the remaining $75. Under the terms of the contract, Sensys can receive up to $90,000 a month for each camera in operation — or up to $540,000 in a six-month period. The city keeps any additional revenue.
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com at (352) 848-1435.