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Romano: Will red-light camera legal battle come back to haunt cities?

With 7,762 red-light camera citations issued in 2010, the intersection of Bruce B. Downs and Fletcher Avenue was the most ticketed location in Hillsborough County. Of the six intersections in Hillsborough County with cameras, this intersection also had the most cameras — three.
Published Nov. 13, 2014

One court case is still not final, and the other may have been filed prematurely.

So don't get too excited and, for heaven's sake, don't start spending money that will probably never reach your bank account.

However …

Various cities and counties across the state may have a teensy problem with their red-light camera programs. And, by teensy, I mean they could be on the hook for millions of dollars in refunds to drivers who were nicked by violations in the past few years.

I don't think municipalities are sweating just yet. And they're certainly not overhauling budgets. But, if you stare long enough, you may see a nervous tic or two around the water cooler at City Hall.

With that in mind, here's the dumbed-down version (the only version I'm qualified to offer) of what's going on:

Last month, a district court of appeal ruled the South Florida city of Hollywood had improperly outsourced its law enforcement authority with the way red-light camera violations were handled. That decision is still not final, and there's a chance the issue could wind up in front of the state's Supreme Court.

But that ruling led to a pair of lawsuits seeking refunds for citations issued by municipalities through American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the private company that set up cameras in dozens of Florida cities. The suits are seeking class-action status, which means hundreds of thousands of motorists might be eligible for a refund.

"Without question," New Port Richey City Manager Debbie Manns said, "we are paying close attention to this issue."

The argument is whether too much authority was delegated to ATS. The common procedure is for ATS officials to review footage, send video of possible infractions to local law enforcement, and then send notices of violations for any cases confirmed by the police. The court essentially said that was too much authority being outsourced.

"The core value issue is constitutional due-process rights," said Palm Beach Gardens lawyer Theodore Leopold, who filed one of the lawsuits. "We're going down a slippery slope when the government starts outsourcing decisions of a judicial nature.

"The fact that the private company involved has a financial stake in the outcome just makes it that much worse and that much more of a violation of due process."

Even if the court ruling is upheld, it probably won't mean the end of red-light cameras. Municipalities could tweak the process as a remedy.

Palm Beach officials immediately suspended their program after the court ruling, but Tampa officials decided to continue issuing violations.

"I don't want us to be making changes on the basis of a decision that is not yet a final order," said Tampa City Attorney Julia Mandell.

If the district court decision is still up in the air, the class-action suit faces even greater hurdles, because every municipality has slightly different procedures, making a uniform ruling difficult.

And yet, the consequences could be enormous.

For instance, St. Petersburg, which recently shut down red-light cameras, generated $8.8 million in revenue over a three-year span. A little more than half went to the state, while ATS pocketed $2.9 million, and the city netted about $900,000 after expenses.

Multiply that with cities across the state, and you've got the potential for a lot of local government types checking their rearview mirrors.

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