A Broward County traffic judge declared this week that police officers can no longer ticket drivers for running red lights — a ruling that stems from the ongoing legal battle over red-light cameras.
Judge Fred Berman said officer-written tickets are unconstitutional because they carry stiffer penalties than when a camera catches a red-light runner.
Under Florida red-light camera law, violators can mail in $158 and have no notation on their drivers' licenses. A fine plus court costs for an officer-written ticket is usually about $260 plus three points assessed against the license.
The state can't punish people differently for the same crime, Berman ruled. That violates equal protection clauses in both the U.S. and Florida constitutions.
"This could be the beginning of the end for red-light cameras," said Fort Lauderdale attorney Ted Hollander, who represented the driver. "Cities are going to have to choose between officers and cameras and will not be allowed to do both. If it is really about safety, they are going to have to stay with officers issuing tickets because that affects points and driver's licenses."
The Florida Attorney General's Office will appeal the ruling, said spokeswoman Jennifer Krell Davis.
The state had argued that red-light cameras serve a public purpose — catching more violators. Penalties can legally vary because the camera process is different.
Police officers ticket drivers. But with camera violations, car owners can be held responsible even if they weren't driving.
The camera law's intent is to increase the number of tickets written, the state said. "The cities and court system would be incredibly burdened if every ticketed owner was forced to go to trial to avoid getting points on his or her license," according to a written argument the state submitted before the ruling.
Berman's order is binding only in his court, but a Miami-Dade traffic judge already is mulling the same argument. Hollander plans to raise it Tuesday in a Palm Beach case as well. Either way those judges rule, the issue will likely rise through appellate courts until Florida gets a unified statewide decision.
Hollander and several other South Florida lawyers who specialize in traffic cases have been fighting red-light tickets for months on various technical grounds. Hundreds of cases have been dismissed.
A few months ago, Hollander tried to make the equal protection argument in a Miami-Dade red-light camera case. The judge ruled he lacked standing because his client was the one getting the lesser punishment.
So Hollander waited for a client to come along who had been ticketed by an officer.
The Legislature, which sets traffic fines, could equalize the two punishments, but that's not a given. Last session the House voted to ban red-light cameras but the measure died in the Senate.
Hillsborough County, Temple Terrace, Port Richey, Kenneth City, Gulfport and South Pasadena have red light cameras up and running. Tampa and St. Petersburg plan to install them soon.
If the Broward ruling should hold up statewide, then St. Petersburg could get out of its contract with the red-light camera vendor without any charge, said Mayor Bill Foster.
But he doesn't foresee that necessity.
"We go through these hiccups every time there are technological advances," Foster said. "The rules of evidence change, and it takes a while for the courts and the law to catch up. But they always do."
Bradenton resident Melissa Wandall hopes so. In 2003, her husband Mark was killed by a red-light runner at age 30, two weeks before his daughter was born. She lobbied for the red light camera law.
"People think this is government intrusion, but real lives are at stake," she said. "It's so bad that people take the law and twist it and turn it to help violators."