Politics

Florida Supreme Court to Hear Red Light Camera Cases, Could Refund Millions of Dollars

By: Eric Giunta | Posted: November 14, 2012 3:55 AM
Florida Supreme Court, Red Light Camera
The Florida Supreme Court announced Nov. 6 that it would hear appeals by two motorists who are contesting the legality of red-light camera citations issued before July 2010; if everything goes their clients' way, attorneys say thousands of citizens could collectively receive millions in refunds.

The court has yet to set a date for the hearing.

The two drivers bringing their appeal before the state high court are Richard Masone of Aventura and Michael Udowychenko of Kissimmee. Both received their citations in 2009; Masone cannot recall whether he was driving his car at the time it was photographed running a red light; Udowychenko does not dispute his culpability. Both agree, and argue, that their citations violated Florida law. 

Between 2007 and July 2010, a handful of cities in the Sunshine State installed red-light cameras at several traffic stops. The devices, which are operated by private corporations, contain special sensors which are supposed to videotape and snap photographs of the license plates of drivers who run red lights. Employees of the corporation review the videos taken, and submit those of apparent traffic offenses to city police officers, who in turn make the final determination into whether a driver receives a code violation (not a traffic citation).

It was only in July 2010 that the Florida Legislature passed a law – the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act – expressly authorizing and regulating red-light cameras; the plaintiffs in the instant lawsuits insist that local governments were constitutionally and statutorily preempted from installing the controversial devices before the Act went into effect.

Since July 10, well over a hundred cities have installed red-light cameras and now issue code violations based on their recordings.

Bret Lusskin, Marone’s attorney, tells Sunshine State News his case rests principally on Section 316 of the Florida Statutes, the State Uniform Traffic Control Law. The section states that its purpose is “to make uniform traffic laws to apply throughout the state,” and that “the provisions of this chapter shall be applicable and uniform throughout this state and in all political subdivisions and municipalities therein, and no local authority shall enact or enforce any ordinance on a matter covered by this chapter unless expressly authorized.”

Lusskin says this language expressly prohibited local governments from issuing red-light camera traffic code citations while Florida law did not provide for such. The city of Aventura disagreed, citing two subsections of the statute which read, in relevant part:

“The Legislature recognizes that there are conditions which require municipalities to pass certain other traffic ordinances in regulation of municipal traffic that are not required to regulate movement of traffic outside of such municipalities. ... The provisions of this chapter shall not be deemed to prevent local authorities ... from ... regulating, restricting, or monitoring traffic by security devices or personnel on public streets and highways, whether by public or private parties.”

Lusskin’s suit counters that this legislative exception was only intended to allow local governments “to respond to special conditions that do not exist beyond the city limits”; the running of red lights is not such a condition.

The suit also argues that, before 2010, the red-light camera system did more than simply “regulate” traffic: it completely replaced the provisions of the State Traffic Control Law which regulated the amount of fines a violator could be assessed as well as the proper judicial venue for contesting citations. Under state law, traffic violations are heard by county courts; the city of Aventura had set up a special tribunal operated out of city hall.

Lusskin suggests there’s more to this arrangement than a simple good-faith dispute over how to interpret state law.

“This company’s [i.e., American Traffic Solutions] plan was to come in and install all of these cameras for all of these cities – knowing that they were illegal, knowing they would run into legal problems, and prepared to defend them,” Lusskin tells the News. “Once the big legal fight started, the company – working together with its army of lobbyists – would get the law changed, and once the law changed, the company would already have the infrastructure in place in all these municipalities and counties so that it would be too late for any of their competitors to come in and get contracts, and they would have sort of a monopoly. It’s worked. They’re responsible for almost every county and city that has red-light cameras.”

Udowychenko’s attorney, Jason Weisser, tells the News that a favorable ruling by the Supreme Court might enable his client to file a class-action suit, and the refund-payouts by the surveillance companies and local governments could number “in the millions of dollars.”

Weisser’s own legal arguments mirror Lusskin’s, though he places more emphasis on the constitutional aspects; he says the cameras, as employed before July 2010, violated Articles V and VIII of the Florida Constitution. The former provides that the county courts are the proper forum to deal with traffic violations, while the latter provides that city codes cannot preempt state law.

“I’ve been an opponent of red-light cameras from the beginning, for both legal and philosophical reasons,” Lusskin says.

“The burden of proof anytime a person is accused of breaking the law -- including a traffic law -- is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’” he says. “But that’s not the case here. Nowhere in this process was the state ever able to prove who was driving the vehicle. You were guilty until proven innocent. This turned the most important legal principle we have in America on its head.

“Not only that,” he continues, “but having government cameras on every street corner is an Orwellian nightmare.”

The 2010 Traffic Safety Act has clarified that local governments carry the burden of “proving beyond a reasonable doubt” that vehicle owners are in fact driving their vehicles at the time a violation occurs. The Act also provides that a driver will not be cited for making a right-hand turn at a red light, so long as he acts safely and reasonably. Finally, it prohibits cities and counties from paying surveillance corporations on a per-violation basis.

“Essentially everything what we were alleging in our [2009] complaint has already been addressed by state law,” Weisser tells the News.

Lusskin says it isn’t just private corporate greed that led to the violation of his client’s – and thousands of other drivers’ – civil liberties.

“[Local government officials] have gone through all of these mental and linguistic gymnastics to make what they were doing look legal, and they’ve given us sound bites about how it’s all about safety on the road,” he says. “But the reality is just money: cities and counties were strapped for cash, and they found another way to take money from the people.”



Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116.



Comments (9)

Donna Roberts
6:03PM MAY 21ST 2014
Why doesn't the red light cameras be used for finding out who was the cause of an accident at an intersection instead of who is running the red light?
Fernando Rivas
11:00PM NOV 20TH 2013
This red light cameras are no good. They do not really know who is driving. They just know the license tag, and then the owner of the vehicle becomes responsible for the vehicle crossing a red light as it turns yellow or green.
Fernando Rivas
11:00PM NOV 20TH 2013
This red light cameras are no good. They do not really know who is driving. They just know the license tag, and then the owner of the vehicle becomes responsible for the vehicle crossing a red light as it turns yellow or green.
william cunningham
8:14PM OCT 30TH 2013
It is surprising how people who may have been photoshoped give the benefit to a Private corporation. And go to a meeting not covered by the open meetings act. And still think there at a GOVERENMENT function. If you have to make a right turn on red, Stop at the line, open your door wide and close. If your sent a REQUEST for a $100 go see your pictures. if your door does not open, you have to decide if the magic trick was worth a $100
Gil wright
11:07AM FEB 15TH 2013
I support red light cameras. They obviously are a deterrent to the terrible accidents. If ones concern is about a burden on the poor, then offer waivers for those who will attend 5 hours of driving training and direct a sufficient portion of the fees to paying for this training. Be sure to have signs at most lights, but not all, because everyone knows the law! I am aware of the 'for profit aspect' and that should be modified.
william cunningham
8:21PM OCT 30TH 2013
They are a deterrent because people who were abused by them, and can remember what really happened, refuse to go right on red!! I hope you are behind someone like that when you are late for work someday.
J Farinas
7:39AM FEB 25TH 2013
How do you know whether or not it deters accidents, do you have proof/statistics? Are you taking the word of an officer? or do you not question the more critical components?

Sure it catches people running red lights, but it will NOT catch someone speeding 100mph through a yellow, it wont catch that right turning vehicle that rides the sidewalk where pedestrians are standing on, it wont even catch the driver who turns left or right on a non turning lane... as long as his light was green, no "infraction/crime" was committed.

In an ideal world, the cameras would have to be perfect in sorting out the real infractions (near misses, pedestrians, turning while the perpendicular light actually is on green, not in the left turn lane, etc) vs minor ones that really had no danger to anyone or anything.

But we don't live in an ideal world, its the real world.

The red light cameras just do not work. It doesn't account for many factors such as drivers who turn left from the farthest right of 3 lanes, not issuing the violation to the DRIVER (they mail the notice to the owner), no audio to discern any nearby emergency vehicle, etc.

The concern isn't about a burden of the poor, it probably isn't even about that at all, but rather it just being unfair to motorists in nearly every way possible, legally and on the road.
ELAYNE
11:05AM JAN 24TH 2013
IS THIS LAW IN EFFECT AS OF TODAY. I GOT A TICKET AND I THOUGHT IT WAS ILLEGAL, BUT THE CITY OF AVENTURA TOLD ME IT WAS LEGAL. THANK YOU ELAYNE EMOE@ATLANTICBB.NET 305-682-9901
James C. Walker
3:59PM NOV 15TH 2012
If there is any justice, the Florida Supreme Court will rule that all red light camera tickets issued prior to the July 2010 authorizing law are invalid AND will require refunding 100% of all monies collected. We hope that the Supreme Court rules on law, and NOT on "having pity for the cities that will have to refund millions of dollars in these tough economic times."

The unregulated operation of red light cameras for profit was totally unacceptable under every aspect of fairness and the law. The improperly issued tickets should be voided and all monies returned.

James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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