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Crime & Courts

First red light appeals hearing held in St. Petersburg

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Published:   |   Updated: September 13, 2013 at 09:28 PM

ST. PETERSBURG — The city should be $1,032 richer within three months.

None of the four drivers who appealed their red-light camera tickets Friday succeeded in getting out of their $158 fines. Now each has to pay another $100 for challenging their tickets.

Friday’s hearing was the first of its kind in Florida under a new state law that went into effect in July, according to state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who attended the proceedings. The law set up an appeals process allowing drivers to contest their tickets, but it also let cities charge a administrative fee of up to $250 on top of the fines for those who lost their appeal.

In the Tampa Bay area, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Gulfport, Kenneth City, South Pasadena, Oldsmar, Tampa, Temple Terrace, Sarasota and Bradenton use red-light cameras, and each is required to provide an appeals process for ticketed drivers.

The changes enacted by the Legislature aimed to add another level of scrutiny to a process often criticized as indiscriminate and without the ability to weigh the nuances of each case.

Three of the violations challenged Friday involved left-hand turns as traffic lights were turning red. The fourth was a right turn on a red light. In that case, driver Al Le Pri, who was turning right onto Gandy Boulevard from Fourth Street North on July 25, was understandably in a hurry.

“I had just received a call from Tampa General that my wife had an hour to live,” Le Pri said. “I was very nervous.”

Hearing officer Erin Barnett told Le Pri she was sympathetic to his plight but said several photos and video collected from an overhead camera showed he hadn’t slowed down enough as he headed into the turn.

Photographs and video for each of the infractions accompanied testimony from A.J. Young, a civilian investigator with the St. Petersburg Police Department.

St. Petersburg’s 10 cameras capture 800 to 1,100 possible violations each week; the police department usually deems about half of them legitimate.

The infractions are treated much like parking tickets unless a driver doesn’t pay within 60 days.

Richard Corea insisted the light he drove through July 22 at Fourth Street and 22nd Avenue North was yellow.

“When I made that left hand turn, it was amber,’’ Corea said Friday. “It wasn’t red when I made that turn.”

Another driver, Kimberly Pleasants, said she filed her appeal so she could see the video of her car running a red light as she made a left onto Tyrone Boulevard from 66th Street North. She didn’t know an unsuccessful appeal would cost her an additional $100, though.

Barnett did not overturn any of the fines, but she did allow each the maximum amount of time — 90 days — to pay up.

Pleasants told Barnett she lives on disability payments and said even the 90 days to pay isn’t enough.

“I get $600 a month,” she said. “This is so stupid.”

The fourth challenger was Antownn Willis, whose wife was driving his car when it ran a red light during a left turn at the intersection of 66th Street and Tyrone Boulevard.

“It was pouring down rain and I had two kids in the back seat,” said his wife, Krystal Willis.

She said she had been visiting from the couple’s home in Lutz, and was afraid braking in the rain would make her car slide into the intersection. So she drove through the red light - and her husband got a ticket in the mail weeks later.

The state made red light cameras legal in 2011, and they have been the subject of a range of complaints from critics, including complaints the real reasons governments have adopted them are the campaign donations red light camera manufacturers give to local candidates and the cameras’ lucrative revenue potential for municipal coffers.

Young said the cameras are all about safety and encouraging safer driving.

“Had a crash occurred — and we’ve seen a number of crashes — what do you say to the family of the pedestrian that he runs over going to see the wife that’s in the hospital?” Young said, referring to Le Pri’s case.

Another hearing is scheduled at St. Petersburg City Hall next Friday, and communities across the state will be following suit.

The initial hearing was sparsely attended, but Brandes, a vocal critic of red light cameras who recently filed legislation to repeal them, was there to observe. He said he’ll be making his rounds at similar hearings throughout the state because he wants to see if the process is working.

While allowing appeals is good, drivers such as Le Pri, whom he said could have won their appeals, were ill-equipped to defend themselves, Brandes said.

“It was valuable that we have a process for people to contest notices of violation,” Brandes said.“No one really put up any defense, and there were some cases that I would argue they could have easily made some pretty substantial arguments in their own defense.”

kbradshaw@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7999

Twitter: @kbradshawTBO

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