Editorial: Red-light ruling puts local governments on notice

Published June 17, 2014

The Florida Supreme Court brought some needed uniformity last week to the operation of red-light cameras across the state. The court ruled that Hillsborough County and more than a dozen local governments broke the law by putting the cameras in place before the Legislature approved them for statewide use in 2010. The ruling should be a signal to standardize other aspects of the camera program, and communities that jumped the gun should return the money to those who were fined.

The Supreme Court opinion came in a consolidated case after two state appellate courts handed down conflicting opinions. The 5-2 majority ruled that cities and counties had no authority under state law to create the camera programs before July 2010, the date the Legislature established for the programs to operate statewide. Writing for the majority, Justice Charles Canady held that the local laws were invalid because they were not expressly provided for under a state statute intended to make traffic laws uniform across the state.

The decision was sensible for recognizing the public safety and due process rationales for having standard driving practices across the state. Some jurisdictions, for example, ticket drivers for failing to make a complete stop before turning right, while others don't. And lawyers are concerned that some governments have reduced the times of yellow traffic lights to boost the number of citations they write. By ruling in such a lopsided way on behalf of the need for uniformity on the roads, the court has set a standard for fair play that the cameras must meet in every other aspect of their operation.

The communities that rushed to cash in on this revenue stream under the pretense of promoting public safety now need to return the money, which reaches into the millions. Four jurisdictions in the Tampa Bay area are affected: Hillsborough County, Temple Terrace, Port Richey and Brooksville. Officials with those governments say they are reviewing the decision, but none has committed either way.

Plaintiffs' attorneys said it likely will take a lawsuit to force refunds. The high court decision addressed only the legal issues at play, not any remedy. But given that the court ruled that the ordinances are invalid because they are expressly precluded by state law, it only follows that the proceeds from an illegal operation would be invalid as well.

Local governments would be better off learning a lesson than spending tax money to try to keep proceeds from a gotcha operation that the state's highest court found illegal. They should resolve these cases and turn their attention toward the bigger question of whether red-light cameras serve a legitimate purpose at all.