Who makes the call on red light violations?

Newx4Jax investigates: Red light enforcement process in Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office granted News4Jax the first look into how every single red-light incident is processed.

Red light cameras stir emotions on all sides of the argument. In fact, lawsuits in South Florida contest red light camera citations, arguing that police officers don't make the decisions, instead, third-party monitoring services do. Last October, the Florida District Court of Appeals agreed, upholding a local ban on automated, caught-on-camera tickets.

The ruling said, "In Florida, only law enforcement officers have the legal authority to issue citation for traffic infractions, which means only law enforcement officers and traffic enforcement officers are entitled to determine who gets prosecuted for a red light violation."

Here in Jacksonville, JSO officers do go through every red light incident.  We were allowed into the room to observe how that vetting process works.  While there, we also got a peek inside the Sheriff's passion for preventing collisions and trying to make intersections safer. For John Rutherford – it seems very personal.

We looked at several photos and videos that seem to speak for themselves.

"The vehicle going is 22 miles per hour, the light's been red for 1.2 seconds, northbound on Southside Boulevard," Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford told us, pointing at the video we watched together over the shoulder of an officer. Video after video shows scenes from the red light camera intersections around the city.

Formally, that vetting room is called the Traffic Infraction Enforcement Unit, and it's been off-limits to reporters until now. Three officers working at the time we visited, all reviewing photos and videos of red light intersection infractions submitted by the Redflex Company, the business operating the cameras. Not all the incidents flowing through the Redflex system will turn into Notices of Violation, but several we looked at show why officers approve the next step of the enforcement process.

And Rutherford wants to make clear: real people, real police officers, make the call on what's a violation, and what isn't.

I asked the Sheriff, "So police officers, do they make their decisions based on same factors they would out on the street, watching from a cruiser, right in front of them, rather than on a video screen?"

"Absolutely. Go through same process. Actually though, it's easier with the Redflex system to determine whether somebody ran a red light or not," Rutherford said.  "I can freeze it at a certain point, and see: the light's red, the wheels are behind the intersection, the entrance to the intersection so I know that's a violation."

Not everyone who formally runs a red light gets a notice of violation. For instance, no notice goes out to people who turn right on red. Rutherford says there's also a degree of forgiveness offered – based on a judgment call. 

 "In fact lemme tell ya," Rutherford said, "Some of those come to us as violations, and that's another reason some of these get rejected. An individual slides to a stop. They go into the intersection, but not through the intersection. No damage, don't hit anybody, don't hit anything, and they back up. We don't write that citation."

Rutherford's office posts a Red Light Runner of the week on social media. The point is not to embarrass the drivers, but to show drivers who are not running red lights what should worry them. It hits home to the Sheriff. He says after years of working wrecks, Rutherford took home photos of deadly accidents at Beach and Hodges, showing them to his children when they were young drivers.

"There's an old saying, you can be right – and be dead right," said Rutherford. "So I wanted to teach them the importance of driving defensively. And I think that's what this program does. I was glad they came up with the idea."

Does red light camera monitoring save lives? Rutherford says all the evidence on collisions isn't in – but he looks at a sharp decline in violations at the first 18 approaches that went "live" in Jacksonville – dropping from more than 3200 to fewer than a thousand.

"How anybody could look at that and not say that those intersections are safer with two-thousand fewer violations - CLEARLY it's safer! It HAS to be, because you have two-thousand fewer violations taking place. And that's a direct result of that camera being there and changing folks behavior."

Examples of JSO's "Red Light Runners of the Week:"

More information on red light cameras on the City of Jacksonville's Respect the Red website.

We asked Jacksonville Sheriff's Office for the stats – the numbers in November 2014 with 40 approaches monitored by red light cameras.

  • 4,921 total incidents processed through the unit we showed you.
  • 2,622 were not approved for a notice of violation...
  • 2,299 notices were issued. Of these, we're told 271 became what are known as UTC's, uniform traffic citations.  This is when a driver does not respond to the mailed notice of violation..  It could mean something as simple as the wrong address or the driver may have chosen to ignore it.

The fine if you run a red light is $158. So how does that add up?  JSO says for example from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014:

Red light camera revenue earned$575,161.00
Amount due to the city of Jacksonville  $32,210.82
            Total revenue from red-light tickets $607,371.82 
Amount of revenue paid to state of Florida  ( 26,214.83)
Amount of revenue paid to Redflex (camera vendor) (310,275.80)
Net revenue to city of Jacksonville general revenue fund  $260,881.19

What's next for red light cameras in Jacksonville, since it seems the legal challenges in other parts of the state can't make the same complaint about the system here? Since real officers make the decisions -- the legal challenge in Hollywood, Fla. for example -- don't seem viable here. 

To follow cases across the country concerning red light camera enforcement, this website posts legal opinions: TheNewspaper.com.

Rutherford continues working to launch the HALO system with the red light cameras. Technology would measure the likelihood of an approaching car to enter an intersection within three seconds of the light turning red in that direction. The HALO system would HOLD the red light in the other direction, hopefully creating an opportunity for the red light runner to clear the intersection without a crash happening.

Once an officer decides to send the Notice of Violation, how much time to drivers have to fight back, or pay up? JSO allows 60 days and the options are pay the fine, request a hearing, OR nominate another driver. That only happens once, by the way. To nominate another driver, the car's registered owner signs an affidavit – swearing what the say is true.

We reached out to AAA and asked for the auto club's stand on red light cameras. Spokesperson Karen Morgan told us, "AAA supports the use of red light cameras if certain safeguards are put in place. AAA did oppose the Florida red light camera law because it lacked many of these safeguards. AAA has been working to improve this law."

Below are AAA's concerns regarding current Red Light Camera laws in Florida:

  • AAA recommends red light camera programs focus on intersections with a demonstrated pattern of violations and crashes that can be reduced through use of red light cameras. Cities and counties are not required to consider alternatives to improve intersection safety before installing red light cameras.  Studies demonstrate that enlarging traffic light lenses, re-striping left turn lanes, re-timing traffic signals and adding an all-red clearance interval reduce crashes by as much as 47 percent.  Laws in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia require engineering studies and demonstration of the need for red light cameras before they may be installed.
  • AAA recommends only those citations that have been reviewed and approved by a certified law enforcement officer may be issued. Current law allows a county or municipality to authorize a traffic infraction enforcement officer (who does not have to meet minimum certification requirements) to review and issue a traffic citation.
  • AAA recommends red light camera technology must be used to promote traffic safety, not to generate revenues for government or vendors.  Only a small portion of the $158 collected by counties or municipalities for each red light camera citation is used for public safety purposes ($3 to Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund and $10 to Department of Health Administrative Trust Fund).

About the Authors:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.