Local governments can still use red-light cameras to catch traffic violators, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday, resolving conflicting lower courts' decisions on how the devices should be used in ticketing traffic infractions.
The court's decision to uphold a 2010 state law allowing local governments to use the cameras stemmed from a ticket given to South Florida driver Luis Torres Jimenez, who sued the city of Aventura saying the city had ceded too much authority by allowing its red-light camera vendor to review footage of possible violations. Attorneys acknowledged that Jimenez had committed a traffic infraction by making an illegal right turn on red at the intersection, but argued that allowing the camera vendor to initially review footage before sending it to police constituted an "unconstitutional filter" that ceded too much enforcement power to a third party.
A Miami-Dade judge had overturned the ticket, after a state appeals court ruled in 2014 that a separate red-light camera program in Hollywood was unconstitutional because the cameras delegated too much enforcement oversight to the private vendor.
But the Third District Court of Appeal declared Aventura's use of the cameras within the bounds of the law in 2016, and the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments for the case in February, agreed. Justices said private vendors can review footage so long as the decision to cite drivers remains with the city.
The Legislature's bill "permitted a local government's agent to review information from red light cameras for any purpose short of making the probable cause determination as to whether a traffic infraction was committed," wrote Justice Barbara Pariente in an opinion joined by Justice Peggy Quince and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. "It is clear the Legislature contemplated that the agent would conduct an initial review of those photographs or video or both, before a traffic enforcement officer determines whether probable cause exists."
Each red-light ticket costs $158 and doesn't go on a driver's record unless it isn't paid within 60 days of notice. But the case had wider implications for the rest of the state, where red-light cameras have been an ongoing source of controversy.
Supporters of the cameras have said they improve traffic safety, though critics say the cameras and their resulting fines have primarily become a revenue source for red-light camera vendors and local governments instead. According to an impact study, cameras fines are estimated to bring in about $77 million annually, with about 58 percent going to the state.
A class-action lawsuit against against dozens of local government agencies using the devices had sought to force the return of fines paid under the law, though it was pending the outcome of Jimenez' red-light camera challenge and now seems unlikely to proceed.
Aventura's own program — the first such program in Miami-Dade — had been the subject of several lawsuits since the program began in 2008, before the 2010 law that allowed local governments to cite running red-light on camera as a state traffic violation.
In December, Miami city commissioners voted to end its red-light program, citing concerns about the financial cost borne by lower-income residents.
But several cities elsewhere in Miami-Dade and statewide continue to use cameras to monitor traffic, including Tampa, and some cities like Pembroke Pines and Boynton Beach started their programs back up last year.
Some state lawmakers have tried since the 2010 law to repeal using red-light cameras. A bill this year, sponsored by state Reps. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, and Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, would have shut down the devices by mid-2021, but the proposal failed to make it past its first Senate committee after passing the House. Avila pushed a similar bill last year that also died in the Senate.