Red light cameras plagued by problems across South Florida

Feb 19, 2011

he following article was published in the Orlando Sentinel on February 19, 2011:

Red light cameras plagued by problems across South Florida

By Scott Wyman

Red light cameras have become a legal nightmare for cities across South Florida.

It’s costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars to defend camera-related citations in court with the result being that some cities are spending thousands more than they are collecting in fines.

The state Legislature is considering pulling the plug.

The networks of traffic cameras installed from Pembroke Pines to Fort Lauderdale have failed to live up to promises that thousands of drivers would be caught running red lights and that cities would collect millions of dollars in fines.

An increasing number of drivers are fighting their tickets and winning. Courts in Palm Beach and Broward counties have stunned city officials with rulings that severely limit enforcement. Cities have been forced to devote extra attorneys and cops to pursue tickets, and to readjust budgets as reality overtakes their once rosy projections about fines.

“The rulings have been going against us, and it’s been very labor-intensive for our department,” Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley said.

As a result, some communities like Boca Raton and Delray Beach have delayed plans to install cameras.

Still, supporters believe the legal problems will be sorted out over the next year and that the cameras will prove helpful in reducing accidents and improving traffic safety.

“For me, it has always been a safety issue period,” Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper said. “We have cameras in our parks and other public facilities, and this is a natural progression of technology to enforce our laws. We have busy roadways and a lot of pedestrians, and I believe it will make the roads safer.”

When state lawmakers agreed to allow red light cameras last year, cities thought ticketing would be as simple as what happens when someone speeds through a toll booth without paying. Officials were convinced that the law allowed them to snap pictures of cars running red lights along with their license plates, and simply mail tickets to the owners.

But defense lawyers have been winning decisions in both Palm Beach and Broward that require much more proof.

Judges and hearing officers have required photographic evidence that the car had not entered the intersection before the light turned red. Tickets have been thrown out because officers did not have certified copies of vehicle registrations. Cases also have been dismissed because cities couldn’t prove the employees who review tapes for violations are certified to do so.

Cases involving drivers turning right on red without stopping have been all but impossible to prosecute.

One major setback occurred Jan. 5 when Broward cities had 53 red light violations scheduled for trial. In the first case, the court rejected Pembroke Pines’ evidence as inadmissible and unreliable. The rest of the cases were dismissed or continued as a result.

“We are in uncharted waters,” said Sam Goren, Pembroke Pines’ city attorney. “We believe the statute is explicit, and the cities are making every effort to follow the statute. As this evolves, I think it will become more consistent.”

City attorneys met with Broward’s chief judge two weeks ago in an unsuccessful effort to set guidelines for court cases. They now plan to find a case to take to the regional appellate court or the state Supreme Court. They want a written decision that lays out uniform standards.

Cities that planned to add cameras are debating what to do as a result of the questions.

Delray Beach and Boca Raton signed contracts to install cameras at key intersections, but are now waiting until the legal dust settles. Pompano Beach were scheduled to discuss adding cameras, but will now wait to look at all issues raised.

“There were some issues, a number of legal things, that were mulling around. We don’t want to implement the program until those iron out,” said Boca Raton’s assistant city manager Mike Woika.

Boynton Beach, however, is moving forward. Its cameras could be operational as soon as April. Palm Beach County is pressing ahead, as well. Its first camera is in place at Powerline and Palmetto Park roads west of Boca Raton and within a month could begin issuing warnings. Two more cameras are planned at as yet undetermined intersections in southern and central Palm Beach County.

“We are continuing to go forward,” said Palm Beach County Engineer George Webb.

American Traffic Solutions, which has contracts across both counties to manage red-light cameras, is urging cities to stay the course. Its representatives are telling cities that Florida’s court rulings have been out of step with how other states have enforced red-light camera violations.

“I don’t think things are quite as dire as they seem, but they are a lot rockier than expected,” said Michael McAllister, a lobbyist who represents ATS.

But Fort Lauderdale illustrates just how rocky the situation has become for cities.

Fort Lauderdale started its red-light enforcement in September and issued about 70 tickets a day for the first three months. But in December, the number of tickets issued each day dropped to 30. The average last month was 15 tickets.

While the number of tickets is issued is plunging, the costs are soaring.

Fort Lauderdale’s Police Department is spending more time than planned reviewing tapes and preparing evidence files for court. There is now a backlog of 1,000 cases. The city also has had to assign attorneys to prosecute cases at the court’s direction instead of relying on police officers as is done with other traffic citations.

City commissioners are closely monitoring the situation because their budget depended on bringing in $3 milllion from red-light camera tickets. Now they think they may collect as little as just $500,000 in light of the higher costs and fewer-than-expected tickets.

Pembroke Pines has similar cost concerns. That city has received $76,294 from citations, but the red-light camera program has cost $83,337. Legal fees encompassed $33,189 of that, with the rest going to ATS to manage the cameras.

Cities also are running into problems installing cameras.

Broward County has not allowed cities to use its right-of-way for cameras or agreed to let cities tie cameras into its traffic signal equipment.

County commissioners will discuss that idea March 1, but Commissioner Barbara Sharief, a red light camera critic, also wants her colleagues to discuss supporting the move to have the Legislature repeal the law allowing cameras. And some commissioners have raised concerns about the cost that red light cameras could have on the court system.

State Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and state Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-New Port Richey, have proposed repeal and want the camera program ended by July. Garcia describes the cameras as an “unwarranted, Big Brother initiative.”

Red light camera supporters say they want to return the focus to safety. They cite a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that cameras in 14 large cities in other parts of the country have reduced the rate of fatal crashes by 24 percent between 1996 and 2004.

“The whole purpose of this is a life-safety issue,” said Bruce Roberts, a Fort Lauderdale city commissioner and its former police chief. “Red light cameras have been used successfully around the country, and behavior changes and modifies as people realize the cameras are there.”

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