Red Flags for Red-light Cameras

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Jacksonville city officials believe red-light cameras will improve traffic safety by avoiding T-bone crashes by drivers trying to beat the lights. But many citizens are skeptical that the cameras are merely a way for the government to raise revenue through $158 tickets and will increase rear-end crashes.

Despite lawsuits around the state and a possible review by the Florida Supreme Court, Jacksonville is planning to install 25 cameras at approaches to 17 high-volume intersections and start writing tickets to motorists whose license plates are caught by the cameras. The first cameras should go online in January.

Mayor Alvin Brown’s 2013 budget projects the city will receive $1.5 million in new fines as a result of infractions caught on the cameras, known officially as “traffic infraction detectors.”

Micheal Edwards, director of the Jacksonville Sheriff Office’s patrol and enforcement division, said the goal of installing the new cameras is safety. Through the end of August, Jacksonville had 94 fatal traffic crashes, compared with 64 in the same period last year.

The Sheriff’s Office, with approval of the City Council, has entered into a contract with Redflex Traffic Systems to install and operate the cameras and issue traffic citations. Before the cameras can be installed, the Florida Department of Transportation must give its approval, because all of the camera sites are on state highways.

The locations include multiple intersections on Atlantic Boulevard, Baymeadows Road, Beach Boulevard, Blanding Boulevard, Claire Lane and Southside Boulevard. The camera locations chosen by the JSO are “high frequency accident locations,” Edwards said.

Police believe the cameras will reduce accidents and their severity and cut the number of fatalities and serious injuries.

“There is a real need for this,” Edwards said.

Once the cameras are operational, motorists will have a 30-day period where only warning citations are issued for violations. After that, motorists face a $158 fine for running a red light or illegally turning left on red. A motorist who doesn’t pay within 30 days will see the fine go up to $262.

Redflex receives $3,999 a month for each camera — almost $100,000 for the 25 cameras — which includes installation, operation, maintenance and administrative costs. Any citation money collected beyond the $3,999 would be split in half between the city and the state. The city contract allows the installation of up to 50 cameras.

A sworn police officer will review each alleged infraction before a traffic ticket is issued, Edwards said in an Aug. 29 news conference.

“The camera doesn’t operate until the light turns red,” said Edwards, who said violators will be able to log onto the system to watch the video of their car running the red light.

Currently in Northeast Florida, only Green Cove Springs has red-light cameras, but Orange Park is planning to install them.

Green Cove Springs Chief of Police Robert Musco’s department has been operating five red-light cameras sold by a different company, ATS of Arizona, for almost a year and has encountered few problems. He said he’s still compiling his year-end statistics but is pleased with the system’s performance.

He said he believes there are fewer red light runners and collisions are down. In addition, the city has collected about $300,000 as its share of the $158 fine per infraction.

“The cameras don’t lie. There is no way to argue with it,” Musco said.

Motorists who wish to challenge citations from red-light cameras can go to court, but few are successful.

“The judge sees the same videotape that our officers saw,” Musco said. Motorists are sent copies of pictures and can log onto a computer to see their violations as captured by the system.

“The video is as clear as a bell,” said Musco, who said two officers have spent hours going through the violations sent by ATS.

“If it is a close call, it goes to the driver,” Musco said.

Legal experts see some major problems with the law. If a red-light camera captures a picture of your car running through a red light, you are automatically presumed guilty and mailed a ticket.

Nothing has to be proven in court. Nobody has to testify that the picture is accurate, the date is correct or the camera was operating properly.

Nassau County defense attorney Teri Sopp says there can be issues for the cameras.

“From what I have seen from other counties, there are some proof problems with the traffic cameras. If a driver challenges the accusation and demands a trial, it has been difficult for the cameras to be authenticated or be shown to be accurate and reliable,” Sopp said.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal upheld a lower court decision that the Orlando red-light camera ordinance conflicts with state law because it allows a city code-enforcement officer — as opposed to a police officer — to review the photos and determine when an infraction has occurred. In other cases, there have been issues about the length of time for yellow lights.

Some cities, including Orlando, have found the law quite expensive. The city of Apopka had to pay $300,000 after losing a case, Jacksonville chief deputy general counsel Howard Maltz said. A challenge in Orlando could cost that city about $6 million, Maltz told two City Council committees as they debated the issue in late August.

The state red-light camera law is likely headed to the Florida Supreme Court because drivers in several South Florida counties are fighting it.

Jacksonville defense attorney L. Lee Lockett said the state law carves out some exemptions, such as running a red light to avoid an emergency vehicle or running a red light in a funeral procession.

But it falls on the owner of the vehicle to submit an affidavit outlining why one of the exceptions should apply, Lockett said.

Ron Word

rword@folioweekly.com

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