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Lawsuit takes aim at Tampa's red-light camera program

TAMPA — A new lawsuit could mean the beginning of the end for Tampa's red-light camera program — one that lawyers call unconstitutional and activists say can be abused.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of Florida lawyers Aug. 11 in Hillsborough circuit court against the city of Tampa and the private, for-profit merchant the city uses to review video footage and issue tickets for red-light infractions.

The suit argued that the city's delegation of its powers to ticket and fine drivers who run red lights to American Traffic Solutions goes against Florida statutes and aims for all tickets issued since the program started in 2011 to be declared void.

"ATS unlawfully conducts and controls almost the entire issuance and enforcement process for red-light camera violations and makes determinations which, under Florida law, are only to be performed by a (police officer)," according to the lawsuit.

"If the city chooses to run a red-light program, it needs to do so in compliance with Florida law," said Stephen Rosenthal, co-lead counsel for the attorneys suing the city. "Otherwise, tickets issued are unlawful and people should not have had to pay those fines."

Since Tampa's program started in November 2011, the city has collected $11.4 million in revenue from red-light tickets through May 2015. Of that, $7 million has gone to ATS.

Red-light cameras have been hotly debated across the Tampa Bay area and Florida but have lost favor in some jurisdictions. The technology is used by municipalities in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, but last year St. Petersburg ended its program.

The Tampa lawsuit's legal argument follows an October decision from Florida's 4th District Court of Appeal, which dismissed a citation against a Hollywood motorist. The appellate court in West Palm Beach ruled that officials delegated too much authority to the vendor, which was also American Traffic Solutions.

That decision — which the Florida Supreme Court declined to review — spawned several class-action lawsuits that have been consolidated in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Tampa was originally named as a defendant among more than 70 Florida municipalities in that case, but the city argued it shouldn't be sued in Miami. Rosenthal said red-light ticket opponents then chose to file this latest suit against Tampa in its own circuit, which covers every person who has been issued a ticket by the city since the red-light program began four years ago.

Tampa City Attorney Julia Mandell said she would not comment on pending litigation, but said, "we will vigorously defend" the program.

Tampa Police Department spokeswoman Andrea Davis defended the program, saying its goal is to save lives by stopping drivers from running red lights. The number of red-light tickets police issued fell 33 percent, according to city data, going from 61,618 in 2012 to 41,369 in 2014.

"The decrease in the number of violations over time at the intersections with the red-light cameras shows that drivers are changing their patterns and using more caution at these intersections," she said.

Florida law authorizes municipalities to delegate the initial review of potential traffic violations captured by red-light cameras, the suit argued, but it doesn't authorize them to delegate the power to determine who violated the law or the ability to send out notices of violation and issue traffic citations.

Under Tampa's program, ATS reviews recorded images and video from red-light cameras and determines whether those images should be sent to a police officer. When an officer authorizes enforcement, ATS automatically sends a notice of violation with a copy of the officer's signature and badge number.

Rosenthal said he doesn't have any problem with using red-light cameras to improve traffic safety. And his group doesn't want to kill the program entirely.

"That's a political issue," he said.

But he does want to prevent future illegal exactions.

"A number of cities are seeing the light," Rosenthal said, "and changing the way they run things."

The Tampa lawsuit has a supporter on the other side of the bay: Matt Florell, who actively campaigned against the red-light camera program that St. Petersburg got rid of in 2014.

"The problem is they are way too easy to abuse," he said, pointing to the tendency of cities to go after less dangerous infractions — like right on red — that are more profitable.

Contact Anne Steele at asteele@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @annemariesteele.

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