Red-light cameras being challenged across Florida

MIAMI – Last year, Pembroke Pines turned on its first red-light camera. Across South Florida, other cities followed.

But now critics – and lawsuits – are questioning whether the cameras pass legal muster. Several Florida cities, including Aventura and Miami Gardens, face lawsuits challenging the cameras and the hefty fines they bring.

The cases vary, and no one has declared victory just yet. But the suits focus on one key argument: Traffic laws must be uniform across the state, and city-by-city camera laws violate that principle. The lawsuits also raise concerns about due-process rights and question why something that cities describe as a code violation seems so much like a traffic ticket.

Pembroke Pines commissioners discussed the emerging legal challenges recently, then persuaded their red-light vendor to help back them up should a legal action occur. American Traffic Solutions (ATS) agreed to meet any financial obligations with a lien on its equipment and up to $100,000.

Then commissioners went ahead with plans for five more cameras.

The cameras, pitched as a safety device, are also moneymakers. In the typical ATS system in Florida, the vendor receives a cut that ranges from $17.50 to $47.50 per ticket. Cities keep the rest.

In Pines, the tickets run $125 apiece. In some other cities, the fines escalate after repeat offenses.

A Pembroke Pines camera at Pines Boulevard and Southwest 129th Avenue has issued more than $100,000 in fines since March. In Aventura, five cameras have triggered more than $1 million in fines since October. Fort Lauderdale hopes to collect $1.8 million from cameras it has proposed.

Local leaders insist it’s about safety, and that the dollars are an added bonus – that happen to come during difficult financial times.

“If we don’t protect our residents from accidents at red lights, then who is going to do that?” said Aventura Mayor Susan Gottlieb. “You never know when you go to court what will happen. But that doesn’t mean that everything that doesn’t hold up is wrong.”

Any uncertainty could be resolved if the Legislature legalizes the cameras. Lawmakers tried to do that this year, but the legislation failed.

Cities considered red-light cameras for years but hesitated amid legal concerns.

In 2005, Pembroke Pines City Attorney Sam Goren asked then-Attorney General Charlie Crist for his office’s opinion. Crist said local governments had the right to set up cameras, take pictures and let drivers know when they had run red lights.

That part of the opinion is one that cities often cite when defending cameras.

But the second half of Crist’s opinion said cities couldn’t issue red-light tickets without changes to state law.

That part of the opinion is often cited by camera foes.

Cities maneuvered around the disparate points by making red-light-running a code violation – and installing equipment on land not controlled by the state. Pembroke Pines activated its first camera in April 2008; it gave out warnings until March. Since then, it has issued more than 900 citations.