ST. PETERSBURG — The city should only offer refunds to hundreds of motorists who may have been wrongly ticketed at three intersections policed by red-light cameras if they appeal their citation and win, a city attorney is advising.
In a memo sent Friday to the City Council and Mayor Rick Kriseman, Assistant City Attorney Joe Patner said that the red-light camera program is governed by state laws that give motorists due process with two avenues to appeal citations.
Awarding refunds outside of that, he said, could be a violation of the state Constitution, which requires that tax dollars only be used for public purpose.
His warning comes despite the recent decision by leaders of the city of Winter Park to give refunds to hundreds of motorists because it failed to adjust its stoplights in time to comply with a Florida Department of Transportation directive to give drivers more time to react to yellow lights.
“I can’t comment on what another city did or didn’t do,” Patner said. “I’m strictly looking at it from a point of view of analyzing the legality of it. This is the lawful approach.”
Council members asked city attorneys to look into refunds after city transportation officials admitted the yellow duration was too short at three approaches policed by red-light cameras. The timings failed to take account of slight downhill slopes that meant drivers should have more time to stop or to get through the intersection.
That came to light after Matt Florell, a local software programmer and anti-red-light camera activist, paid $600 for an engineering study on one of the intersections.
He questioned whether the city is really interested in refunding drivers who received a $158 ticket because they misjudged the red light by one- or two-tenths of a second, the margin by which the signal was in error. He added that the city has a duty to inform drivers who would not have been ticketed if the lights were configured correctly that they may have grounds to appeal.
“People didn’t know these yellow lights were illegally short is part of the problem,” he said. “These people are paying the price because the city screwed up.”
Drivers have 60 days to appeal their tickets at hearings run by the city or pay the fine. They also may dispute the citation in county court, although that means the moving infraction is escalated to a uniform traffic citation, which raises the fine to $264. Drivers who lose their appeal also must pay court costs that average $40 in county court and are set at $100 for St. Petersburg’s hearings.
Patner said even if drivers have paid the fine they can request a hearing if they have new evidence that may exonerate them.
“That would give them an opportunity to go back to a hearing officer,” he said.
Councilman Charlie Gerdes, a proponent of the city refunding wrongly ticketed drivers, said Patner’s advisory should not rule out the city doing the right thing.
“I don’t think it’s that difficult to cull out the data and identify who the individuals might be who could get a refund,” he said.