Millions in red-light camera fines could be returned

Nov 12, 2012

The following article was published in the Orlando Sentinel on November 12, 2012:

Millions in red-light camera fines could be returned

By Dan Tracy and Robert Nolin

Lawyers will argue before the Florida Supreme Court early next year whether the cities of Orlando and Aventura had the right to install red-light cameras before they were approved by the Legislature.

The stakes are higher than simply deciding whether their actions were legal. If the court rules against the two cities, it could set the stage for a “claw-back” of millions of dollars in fines paid by motorists caught driving through an intersection after the light turned red.

And if Orlando and Aventura, which is in South Florida, have to issue refunds, other cities could forced to follow suit.

Getting at that cash is the ultimate goal of attorneys from a West Palm Beach law firm who will square off with the cities in Tallahassee, probably in February or March.

It is targeting more than the $4.3 million Orlando collected from 2008 to 2010 — when Florida authorized the cameras — but also an estimated $15 million to $20 million that other cities such as Aventura brought in during a similar time frame.

“We’re looking forward to continuing the good fight,” said Dave Kerner, a lawyer with the West Palm Beach firm of Schuler, Halvorson, Weisser and Zoeller.

Other cities that enacted the law early include West Palm Beach, Pembroke Pines and Juno Beach in South Florida, all which settled the suits against them for lesser than full refunds. West Palm Beach, for example, agreed to pay each cited motorist $26.57.

If Kerner’s firm ultimately prevails, much of the money would be refunded to those who paid the fines, though the amount each would get has not been determined. The law firm also would be paid, with the amount decided by a judge.

But it will not be easy getting at the money, even if the Supreme Court sides with Kerner’s firm.

Kerner would have to expand his client list from one to thousands by winning class-action status for the case, meaning he would need a court to certify the firm represents virtually all the people who paid the fines from before mid-2010. A previous attempt for class-action status was rejected by an Orange circuit judge.

Kerner said he thinks he can get that standing if he wins in the Supreme Court, although he would not go into detail. If he is successful, he would have to go back to court and win again on behalf of his new clients.

Orlando officials are skeptical that Kerner and his firm will win either argument, but would not offer their reasoning, saying that should be discussed in court, not in the news media.

The case before the Supreme Court focuses partly on a ticket issued in May 2009 to Michael Udowychenko, a Kissimmee attorney. He paid the $125 fine but hired Kerner’s firm to argue the cameras were illegal.

The case has bounced around the judicial system since with some conflicting decisions. That led to the state Supreme Court announcing on its website Tuesday that it would hear oral arguments after first considering written briefs.

Orlando issued 48,579 red-light tickets from Sept. 1, 2008, to July 1, 2010, when the law changed allowing red-light cameras statewide. The city charged each offender $125 per ticket, but some offenders never paid. The fine went up to $158 when the state approved the cameras.

Now, nearly 100 cities and counties in Florida have cameras, including Orange County, Apopka, Ocoee, Winter Park, Maitland, Kissimmee and Winter Springs. Nationwide, close to 700 jurisdictions have installed the cameras, according to the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a consumer group.

The 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach has ruled that Orlando did not have the right to start a red-light-camera system in 2008, but that decision does not affect the way the program has been run since the state law passed.

The 3rd DCA in South Florida, however, also has ruled that cities were allowed to operate red-light cameras without state approval.

The Supreme Court is expected to resolve that dispute.

Orlando officials have said they launched the ticket-by-camera program before the state sanctioned them because Mayor Buddy Dyer and city commissioners had concluded it would reduce crashes and save lives.

But critics have contended the cameras are all about raising money for cash-strapped governments.

One national study found that red-light cameras saved 159 lives in 14 of the nation’s biggest cities from 2004 to 2008. If similar programs had been operating in all large U.S. cities, 815 deaths could have been avoided during those four years, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said.

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