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Politics

Red-Light Camera Vendor Says Legal Fight Near End of Road

July 24, 2011 - 6:00pm

A company that sells and operates red-light cameras says recent court victories signal "an end" to legal challenges against the controversial traffic enforcement program.

"As judges become more familiar with the evidence needed to convict under the Wandall Safety Act, the number of [ticket] dismissals will continue to fall," said Charles Territo of American Traffic Solutions.

"Recent legal victories in Broward and Miami-Dade courts are a clear sign that the days of legal challenges to red-light safety cameras are coming to an end."

Judges in the two populous Southeast Florida counties have upheld the legality of using camera technology to ticket motorists caught running red lights. The courts rejected claims from drivers who argued that the program is "coercive" and violates the constitutional right to due process.

But one of the judges, Broward's Steven DeLuca, also appeared to be sending mixed signals.

Of the 830 tickets challenged in Broward from July 2010 through May 2011, DeLuca and Traffic Hearings Officer Tom Wich upheld just 44 of them, the Sun-Sentinel reported.

Lawmakers nearly overturned the camera law last session after enacting it in 2010. But a Florida House bill that would have pulled the plug on the cameras was stalled in the Senate Community Affairs Committee by chairman Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.

"They [red-light camera vendors] cannot buyevery politician. If it wasn't for Michael 'Porn' Bennett, those cameras would be off now," said Alex Snitker, the Libertarian Party's 2010 candidate for U.S. Senate.

Bennett, who was caught by Sunshine State News cameras viewing pictures of scantily clad women on his laptop computer on the Senate floor during the 2010 session, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the traffic-signal issue.

ATS says the red-light issue has been resolved on all counts. The company points to the recent Miami-Dade court decision that upheld the camera technology and the procedures for ticketing on four contentious points:

Proof of mailing. Brushing aside defendants' claim that authorities must affirmatively prove that tickets were mailed in timely fashion, the court upheld the "mailbox rule," which stipulates that properly addressed, stamped mail is presumed to have been received.

Establishing ownership of the vehicle. The court found that because the registered owners information is obtained electronically by computer, the information is not "hearsay" and it would be an excessive burden to require a certified copy of DMV records.

Officers' court attendance and training.
The court held that it is not necessary for the issuing officer to be present, and that a public-safety officer may present evidence in court as a records custodian, so long as he or she has the necessary documentation in the packet prepared by the officer for the court.

Admissibility of video. The court upheld video evidence as long as agencies can certify that the red-light camera was tested according to FDOT specifications.

"All in all, less than 2 percent of violations issued have been successfully challenged," said Territo. "A 98 percent conviction rate for red-light running violations sets the standard for any law enforcement program."

Still, Snitker and other opponents continue to advocate alternatives to the red-light camera law. Many favor lengthening yellow-light intervals to ensure that intersections are clear and safe.

"The cameras are not about safety," Snitker said. "They are about generating more income for government."

Fines are set by the state at $158, and more cities are installing the camera gear with an expectation of issuing more tickets.

Research concerning the Wandall Act, named after Mark Wandall who was killed by a red-light runner in Bradenton, is mixed.

The University of South Florida has produced papers arguing that extended yellow lights do more for safety than red light cameras.

On the other side, the Hillsborough County sheriffs office said that since cameras were introduced there, accidents declined from 395 in 2008 to 270 in 2010.

But anti-camera activistscite statistics from Georgia, where news reports indicate that simply extending the yellow-light time reduced infractions by 80 percent.

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-New Port Richey, who carried the repeal measure and co-sponsored a bill to lengthen yellow lights, disputed the notion that the camera issue is settled at the Legislature or in the courts.

"The complete opposite is true. Cases in Arizona [corporate home of ATS] are being thrown out on the basis of the equal protection clause," Corcoran told Sunshine State News.

Pointing to "myriad complications" and a "lack of uniformity" in enforcement, the representative said the fact that lawmakers are looking at setting a statewide standard for timing yellow lights suggests "a complete breakdown" of the system.

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Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 559-4719.

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