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Man uses research and angle of sun to beat Clearwater red-light ticket

Published Nov. 26, 2013

CLEARWATER — Richard Cornelius delivered his line perfectly, piquing the interest of the Municipal Code Enforcement Board, which was already flagging after just a half-hour of red-light camera appeals.

The seven volunteer members had already been compared to Nazi Germany by one angry offender.

When asked if he was guilty, Cornelius said he couldn't answer yes or no.

"Your picture says yes, but I've got an extenuating circumstance," said Cornelius, 64, whose car ran a red light at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road in September.

Cornelius' excuse? The Florida sun.

An early morning glare from the rising sun blinded him, Cornelius said. He researched the sun angle, contacting Cornell University for help. He took pictures of the sun slant from 23 degrees to the southeast, which the university told him was the same angle that rays had hit his car at 7:35 a.m. on Sept. 20, just a few days before the autumnal equinox.

He couldn't even see the traffic signal, Cornelius said.

"Yellow, green or what? The sun was coming right at me and I couldn't see," Cornelius said. "That's my story, I'm sticking to it."

The board was rendered momentarily speechless.

"I'm impressed by your ... ," said board chairman Duane Schultz, grasping for a response.

"Tenacity," interjected another board member.

"Anyone who has lived in this state for any length of time is well aware of what the sun does," Schultz said. "But I'm not sure that's an excuse for running a red light."

Turns out, it is. After watching the video, the board voted 4-3 to throw out Cornelius' ticket.

The Nov. 20 monthly code board meeting was the third one that included red-light camera ticket appeals. Several board members say they can't wait to be rid of the duty, which is slated to be turned over to a city-contracted hearing officer in January.

So far, the board has listened to 21 stories, excuses and tales of woe. All but Cornelius were assessed a $158 fine and most of them also were charged an administrative fee ranging from $50 to $150.

It's a tough evidence hurdle to clear. The board has photos and video of every offender snapped by cameras on Chestnut Street as drivers leave Memorial Causeway from Clearwater Beach as well as both directions at the Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher intersection.

Cornelius admitted that the board's decision surprised him.

"A little bit, yeah, a little bit," he said as he left the hearing.

His victory had cost him about 1 1/2 hours in research time and $10 to develop the photos.

And the car he was driving that sun-splashed morning?

A 2006 Chevy Equinox.

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago

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