News Section: Local Government
County Commission Approves Red-Light Camera Agreement Despite Looming Challenges to Constitutionality
BRADENTON – Manatee County Commissioners unanimously approved a contract agreement Tuesday with Xerox to operate red-light cameras. The devices were approved by the board for use in unincorporated areas in 2009, but installation and implementation of the cameras was postponed pending the outcome of state legislation that sought to repeal the law. Multiple judges have dismissed challenges to citations issued for red light camera violations, and many are still pending appeal, while one dismissal was overturned by a District Court of Appeals judge last week.
In June 2011, Broward County Judge Fred Berman, actually ruled that non-camera tickets for running red lights are unconstitutional when issued by a police officer, because they carry a higher fine than red light camera citations (about $260 vs. $158) and impose points on the driver's license. Lawyers claimed the double standard violated the equal protection provisions of both the U.S. and State of Florida's Constitutions.
Last week, however, appellate judges in the District Court of Appeals covering Broward and Palm Beach Counties overruled Berman, saying that drivers who get a ticket from a police officer and those who get a ticket from a camera are different situations, making the variances in penalties legal.
In February 2012, a New Port Richey driver argued that the state red-light camera law was unconstitutional because it shifted the burden of proof onto defendants, violating the Due Process Clause of the 5th and 14th amendments. Rather than police officers having to prove who committed the violation, citations are automatically sent to the first owner listed on the vehicle's registration. Police officers are spared the burden of having to prove that the owner actually committed the violation. If they were not driving – or cannot remember who was driving the vehicle at the time of the alleged offense when they later receive the citation in the mail – it instead becomes the owner's burden to determine that someone else was at the wheel and convince them to sign an affidavit that will result in the violation and fine being transferred to that person.
The Pasco County judge in that case dropped the charge, but attorneys for Port Richey and New Port Richey argued that they were not notified of the challenge or given the chance to argue in favor of the law. Neither was the Florida Attorney General's Office, which is required to be contacted when a state law's constitutionality faces a court challenge.
The Attorney General's Office filed a motion to intervene, asking the judge to set aside dismissing the ticket, which she granted, waiting to see what a circuit court panel decides on an appeal in a separate red-light camera case filed by a retired police officer, who is also arguing the constitutionality based on the varying penalties for camera and non-camera violations in that CCA. Last year, three Hillsborough judges ruled that the county and Temple Terrace are using legal methods of enforcing tickets and collecting fines, while a firm in Palm Beach County won three cases against them, the appeals of which are still pending.
Many other cases are also pending in various courts of appeal on different lines of reasoning, several of which involve citations that were successfully fought at lower levels. Among the arguments against the devices are their coercive nature. Recipients who choose to fight the citations are warned that doing so can result in a much larger fine. Attorneys argue that violators should not be dissuaded from excercising their right to a court hearing with the threat of increased monetary penalties.
Many of the citations issued have also been called misleading and coercive, as they often include a menu of very limited options, which the recipient is instructed to check a block next to the one corresponding with their reason for not paying the "notice of violation" amount. Reasons include having been given a ticket from a police officer for the same infraction and being instructed to pass through an intersection by a police officer or emergency responder, but not a challenge of the law itself.
Others contesting their violation argue that even though revised state law requires that a police officer in the issuing municipality review the citation, it is issued by a private company, usually out of state. They are therefore denied their 6th Amendment Confrontation Clause (right to confront the accuser) of the U.S. Constitution. The goal of groups fighting the constitutionality is to have the law supporting the devices further revised, which could very well still lead to their discontinuation by either statute or cost feasibility. The issue is expected to advance to the state's Supreme Court.
Statistics have shown that red-light camera usage has reduced accidents caused by running red lights since they began being used in Florida. Melissa Wandall, whose husband Mark was killed in Manatee County by a red light runner in 2003, has championed red light cameras across the state. The original legislation is named for her husband and was sponsored by former state representative Ron Reagan.
“For me, this is a legacy of love,” Wandall told the Board Tuesday. “I wanted my daughter not to be marked by tragedy but to know that when something happens in our lives, we can make a difference. Then healing occurs. It’s not about trying to take away anyone’s rights; it’s about ensuring loved ones come back to us at the end of the day.”
Red light cameras are also big revenue generators. The City of Tampa has already made over $2.2 million in its first 9 months since 24 cameras were activated at various intersections. Both the cities of Bradenton and Sarasota brought in over a million dollars each in their first 6 months of cameras. The state also sees handsome revenue from citations, collecting just under half of the revenue. Florida cities and counties took in almost $100 million from the citations in 2011.
Now that the commission has approved an agreement, red light cameras at 53rd Avenue and 34th Street West, and at 57th Avenue East and 15th Street East will begin operating Oct. 15, one month after a warning period aimed at improving traffic behaviors. The fine for running a red light camera will be $158, the same as the city, provided the recipient pays the initial notice.
“The goal is to retrain people and get them to abide by the signals, get them to stop at red lights and stop running them for safety purposes,” said Deputy County Administrator Karen Windon in a release. “Warning notices will be posted and after that one-month warning period tickets will be issued.”
Steve Albritton, a local financial advisor, gave public comment opposing the use of cameras, saying that his goal was also to reduce accidents, but he didn't believe cameras were the way to go. Albritton said that nationwide, people were against the cameras and said that other measures like uniform yellow light times would be more effective. Answering questions of board members, Deputy County Attorney Bill Clague said that the contracts were for 15 years with a clause that allowed the county to get out at five, but with significant expense. He said that violations would only be for going through an intersection, not white line crossings.
The county says that local traffic and law enforcement officials will also evaluate the following intersections in coming months to determine whether there are safety concerns that could be helped by the cameras:
- Cortez Road and U.S. 41
- Cortez Road and 26th Street West
- Cortez Road and 59th Street West
- U.S. 41 and 53rd Avenue West
- U.S. 41 and 57th Avenue West
- S.R. 70 and Tara Boulevard
- U.S. 301 and 60th Avenue East, near the Ellenton Premium Outlets
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