Bondi's office defends red light cameras

By The News Service of Florida, Mike Vasilinda - Tallahassee Bureau Chief

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Attorney General Pam Bondi's office Tuesday urged the Florida Supreme Court to reject a challenge to a red light camera program in the city of Aventura, saying the program does not shift too much power to a private contractor.

Bondi's office filed a 42-page brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold a ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal in the case, one of a series of legal challenges to red light camera programs across the state.

Last year, more than 1.2 million violations were issued for motorists caught running a red light on camera. At $158 apiece, the tickets generated almost $200 million, but a lawsuit has local governments worried they may have to refund the money.

Mark Wandel was killed by a red light runner in 2003. His widow is almost single-handly responsible for the passage of red light camera legislation in Florida.

"I promised my husband I would make a reason for what happened that night at the intersection," Melissa Wandell said in January 2011.

Now, the traffic cameras are under attack on two fronts: in the courts and from the Legislature.

"It's become less about public safety and more about revenue," Rep. Bryan Avila said.

A lawsuit challenging the cameras is presently going before the State Supreme Court. Opponents say cities gave away their police powers to private companies that operate the cameras. The Florida League of Cities is urging the court to keep the cameras.

"The law enforcement officer must make the decision that probable cause exists," Kraig Conn, of the Florida League of Cities, said. "These programs do result in decreased fatal crashes, decreased number of crashes initially and a decrease in the number of violations running a red light."

In its brief, Cities officials write that outlawing the cameras could be catastrophic for local governments. They worry refunds could be ordered.

"If the courts require a one- or three-year return of those funds, say it's three years, it's $150 million," Conn said.

Last year, there were 108 fewer cameras across the state, including the ones taken down from an intersection. But even with the decrease, the number of tickets issued increased 27 percent. That increase gives opponents plenty of ammunition to argue enough is enough.

Since they were legalized in 2010, red light cameras across the state have produced more than $800 million in revenue. The Supreme Court has yet to set a date to hear the case, but it will likely be this fall, with a decision likely in late winter or early spring, right around the time the Legislature is meeting.

The Aventura case stems from motorist Luis Torres Jimenez getting ticketed for turning right at a red light.

In challenging the ticket, Jimenez contended the city had illegally given too much authority to a red light camera contractor to review images of potential violations and to print and send out citations.

But in the brief Tuesday, Bondi's office argued, in part, that the contractor's review of potential violations was a "valid designation of a nondiscretionary, ministerial task" by the city.

"After this ministerial screening process has occurred, it is the city's officer who reviews the working queue of usable images and makes a determination as to whether probable cause exists to issue a notice of violation," the brief said. "The city therefore retains all discretion over the exercise of its police powers."

The Supreme Court in May agreed to take up the case, though it has not set a date for oral arguments, according to an online docket.

News Service of Florida