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Seeing Red in South Florida Cameras at Intersections Are No Substitute for Fair Hearings

In Florida, red light cameras have been used since 2008 to enforce traffic laws at intersections 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In practice, red light cameras create difficult legal issues and unfair outcomes; for example, notices of infraction are mailed to the registered owner’s vehicle whether or not the owner was driving, meaning that the registered owner is held responsible for the ticket regardless of guilt-and if the registered owner fails to pay the ticket within 30 days from when it was mailed, the notice becomes a bona fide traffic citation with license suspension if the registered owner does nothing.

There are defenses, such as that another person was driving the car when the alleged infraction took place, but the defense must be timely made and set forth in an affidavit. Moreover, citations cannot be issued for failure to stop if drivers making right-hand turns on red do so carefully.

As of January 1, 2011, 19 new hearing officers were in place to help with the increase in these types of tickets.

Expansion of Red Light Cameras in South Florida

In September 2008, Aventura was one of the first cities in South Florida to institute a camera enforcement program. Other cities soon followed, including Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach, Hollywood, Hialeah and West Palm Beach.

The cities claimed that the purpose of the cameras was accident prevention-not a grab for motorists’ cash. But numerous lawsuits were filed in response to the procedural unfairness built into the system of automatically issuing citations by mail based on data from the cameras.

Legal challenges to red light cameras continue. In February 2010, a Miami-Dade judge ruled that Aventura’s program went too far in getting around state traffic laws. That case is on appeal.

New Florida State Law

With camera programs like Aventura’s in legal limbo, the Florida Legislature enacted a new state law intended to bring more clarity and fairness to the red light camera enforcement process. Under the new law, which went into effect on July 1, 2010, red light camera violations are now state violations, meaning that hearings to contest them now take place in state court rather than municipal court.

Police agencies are still allowed to mail citations to the registered owners of cars caught on video cameras running red lights. But the hearings available in the state system provide a forum to contest tickets that is more independent of police influence.

Impact of New Law on Court Resources

In Miami-Dade alone, the number of new cases coming into the overstressed traffic division could be as high as 50,000. In response, the 19 new hearing officers receive 40 hours of training and preside behind an elevated bench designed to symbolize judicial independence from law enforcement officials.

Broward County has taken a different approach to the law. Because Broward has relatively few red light cameras, the county is planning to dedicate only one weekly court session to the citations. Judge Robert W. Lee, head of the traffic division, said that no additional hearing officers will be hired unless the municipalities operating the cameras are willing to cover some of the court costs.

Cameras and the Presumption of Innocence

State court is probably preferable to municipal court as a venue for contesting citations. But the entire premise of using video cameras and the mail – rather than actual police officers on the street – should be questioned.

For example, if a mailing address is wrong, someone could end up having his or her driver’s license suspended if the fine goes unpaid-despite having nothing to do with the infraction.

The burden of proof is also a key issue. Video cameras typically capture only a vehicle’s rear view, and thus lack an image of the driver. This essentially recasts the burden of proof, forcing the vehicle to prove he or she wasn’t the driver. No matter how advanced technology has become, that shift in the burden of proof is contrary to one of the overriding principles that our criminal justice system is based on: innocent till proven guilty. Contact a red light camera attorney if you have received a notice of violation.

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