Stop or go? Florida Legislature to debate turning off the red light cameras

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TALLAHASSEE – With controversy surrounding their use and lawsuits pending in court, lawmakers again are expected to wrangle with red-light cameras when they return this week for the 2010 legislative session.

The debate takes on added significance in Collier County, where a handful of lawsuits challenging the use of the traffic control devices are winding their way through the courts.

When it convenes Tuesday for a 60-day session, the Legislature is examining three bills that legalize the use of the cameras at intersections. The already controversial issue has been made dicier following a recent Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge’s decision that threw out a city red-light camera ordinance in Aventura, saying it clashed with other provisions of state law.

An attorney representing a pair of Collier County motorists said there are constitutional issues as well that need to be addressed.

“These ordinances are faulty on multiple fronts,” said Jason Weisser, a West Palm Beach attorney representing two Collier County residents fighting the law.

In response to those and similar concerns, lawmakers are attempting to strike a statewide compromise.

One measure, HB 325, which passed its first committee test in January, would create a $155 fine for running a red light. Half the money would stay in the city or county where the infraction occurred and the other half would be sent to the state.

Two Senate bills, SB 294 and SB 2166, haven’t yet had committee hearings but are expected to remain in the mix. Those measures also split the proceeds of infractions and set up statewide standards.

HB 325 already has drawn criticism from opponents who say the entire red-light system needs to be an all-or-nothing deal. If not, the state will be deluged by a hodgepodge of regulations and a nightmare for commuters who cross multiple county and city lines.

A more recent bill introduced was HB 1235, which would prohibit the use of the devices unless state lawmakers adopt a statewide standard.

“While public safety is very important to me, I do not believe it is right for local governments to use cameras as a means to increase falling revenue under the guise of public safety,” said bill sponsor Rep. Bob Schenck, R- Spring Hill. “I believe this is nothing more than a hidden tax on my constituents and to the citizens of the state of Florida.”

Last year, a bill outlining standards for red light cameras languished at the end of the 2009 session as versions passed back and forth between the two chambers. Lawmakers couldn’t reach a compromise on how the money would be split between local and state governments.

The House had wanted the fines collected to go to a combination of local governments, hospitals and the state, but the Senate wanted more of the money to come to the state general fund.

Florida is among 30 states that debated the issue last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some of the measures gave cities and counties the ability to use red light cameras, while others banned their use.

Lacking a statewide response, several municipalities have pushed ahead with the use of red-light cameras to catch traffic offenders. Opponents argue that only state lawmakers can change the traffic laws.

In Collier County, there are three lawsuits challenging the county’s red-light ordinance. In October, West Palm Beach attorney Jason Weisser filed a class-action claim on behalf of two drivers and others ticketed in Collier.

Sebouh Gourjian, a Collier County criminal defense attorney, also filed an administrative appeal to fight the ordinance on behalf of all drivers in the county and to fight his ticket for turning right on a red light.

This past week, a Miami-Dade circuit judge issued a verbal ruling from the bench that the city of Aventura couldn’t use the cameras to catch red light runners. The city still is deciding how to proceed, but if it appeals, it may be the first major case to hit the appeals level, a step forward in setting a statewide precedent.

The decision has prompted Hillsborough County, Temple Terrace and other communities with red-light cameras to review their policies.

In Florida, 26 cities, including Port Richey and Kenneth City, use the technology. Tampa and St. Petersburg are considering the cameras.

Weisser said the ruling in Aventura, though not binding in Collier, sets a strong message that favors his clients.

“That was a very important decision for us,” Weisser said.

Here are Southwest Florida legislators' priorities: Tell us what you think

__ Contact Michael Peltier at mpeltier1234@comcast.net

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