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Technical questions bog down hearing on right-on-red constitutional arguments

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Judge Donald Scaglione was hoping to hear robust arguments for and against his decision to toss out right-turn red-light camera tickets that came before him.

"I really want to get to the meat of the issues," Scaglione said at the start of Friday's hearing.

It didn't happen. Instead, the hearing became mired in debate over legal technicalities and procedure.

The hearing ended with some good news, though, for motorists who worried that their right-on-red cases, already dismissed on constitutional grounds, could be resurrected. Those cases are settled for good.

In May, Scaglione issued an order stating why he would begin dismissing right-on-red cases. The order applies only to cases heard in his courtroom and does not affect cases he had heard previously.

Scaglione called the portion of the state law dealing with right-on-red violations "vague (and) arbitrary and capricious." The judge also maintains that the 2010 Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act governing traffic camera programs, which created a defense that says a right turn on red without stopping is permissible if the turn is made "in a careful and prudent manner," fails to define those terms, leading to arbitrary rulings.

Finally, Scaglione contends, a rolling right turn on red can result in two different outcomes, depending on whether an officer stops a driver or the turn is caught on camera.

State Attorney General Pam Bondi objected, arguing that state law requires that the attorney general be notified and given an opportunity to be heard when a party alleges that a state law is unconstitutional. The motion asked Scaglione to order defendants to put their constitutional challenges in writing, then set a hearing to consider the challenges.

Scaglione thought Bondi's representative, Robert Dietz, would come to Friday's hearing prepared to argue the constitutional questions. The judge also invited affected defendants and their attorneys to present arguments.

But Dietz insisted that Scaglione must first set aside scores of cases he has dismissed since his May order. Once the defendants formally send notice to Bondi's office, then constitutional issues can be argued, Dietz said. Defense attorneys argued that Bondi doesn't have legal standing to intervene.

There was another wrinkle. In July, the 5th Circuit Court, acting in its appeal capacity, dismissed an appeal challenging a ruling by County Judge Kurt Hitzemann — the other Hernando judge who hears uniform traffic citations — that photos and videos captured by the city of Brooksville's cameras do not meet the legal burden for evidence.

After that, Scaglione issued orders dismissing right-on-red cases on constitutional grounds, or, in the alternative, the defendant would be found not guilty on evidentiary grounds.

At Friday's hearing, Scaglione and Hitzemann agreed to rule that scores of defendants whose cases were dismissed on constitutional grounds would be found not guilty on evidentiary grounds, rendering the constitutional challenges moot.

But all parties agreed that the constitutionality questions are far from settled. Eventually, a defendant will use that argument as a defense.

"I humbly predict we're going to be back here in three to six months, addressing the same issues again," Scaglione said.