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Red-light camera challenge gets rough ride at state Supreme Court

TALLAHASSEE — Motorists hoping that the courts will pull the plug on red-light cameras may have hit a roadblock: the Florida Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, the court heard arguments in a case that could decide the legality of red-light camera programs across the state.

But justices seemed to have little sympathy for attorney Stephen Rosenthal’s argument that communities using the cameras are illegally delegating a law enforcement role to the camera vendor.

Rosenthal was representing Luis Jimenez, a South Florida motorist who sued the city of Aventura after cameras caught him turning right on red. The case wound up at the state’s highest court because appellate courts have failed to agree on the legality of camera programs in other cases, including one brought against Oldsmar.

There’s more at stake than Jimenez’s $158 fine. The court’s ruling will likely determine the outcome in lawsuits filed by traffic attorneys seeking reimbursements for motorists caught running red lights in more than 60 communities, including Tampa.

Rosenthal’s argument to the court centered on the role of camera company workers, who review video of potential violations and forward about 60 percent of cases to police to determine probable cause. That review is an "unconstitutional filter" that cities do not have the power to give to a third party, he said.

But justices could not see how passing every case to police for review would have changed the outcome for Jimenez, who does not dispute he broke the law by ignoring a sign prohibiting a right-on-red turn.

"If he violated the statute, I can’t see what he has to complain about," said Justice Charles Canady.

Justice Barbara Pariente was equally skeptical.

"If there was a program set up where the agent was making the decision on probable cause and there was no independent review by the city, then there might be a good argument there was delegation of the police power to make an arrest," she said. "That did not happen here."

The only difficult question for Florida Solicitor General Amit Agarwal was whether camera company workers are exercising discretionary judgment in deciding what cases to refer to police.

In the case of Aventura, staffers are instructed to pass on any case that is "a close call," he said.

Justices are expected to issue a ruling in the next few months.

Several Florida communities, including St. Petersburg, have already shuttered their cameras as controversy about the devices has shown no sign of abating.

Proponents say the devices deter red-light running and make roads safer.

Critics counter that cameras are used by cities as revenue generators and increase rear-end crashes as motorists are more likely to slam on the brakes.

A Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles study released in December compiled crash data at intersections where cameras are installed over a roughly five-year period through April 2017.

The number of crashes blamed on red-light running fell by almost 5 percent, it found. But it also showed a 10 percent jump in rear-end crashes.

Some state lawmakers are also hoping to shutter cameras.

The Florida House of Representatives passed a bill on Jan. 12 that calls for pulling the plug on the devices by July 2021.

So far, a matching bill in the Florida Senate has not progressed through committee hearings.

More than 1.1 million motorists were ticketed in Florida based on camera data in the 2017 fiscal year, state records show.

If the bill passes, Florida would lose an estimated $77 million in annual revenue from fines, an impact study found.

Local governments would lose an additional $76.8 million.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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