Lawyers are racing to put a stop to red light traffic cameras.
In the past two weeks, several hundred drivers from throughout the state have joined class action suits filed against Aventura, Miami Gardens, Juno Beach and Orlando. Jason Weisser, an attorney leading the latest charge, says he plans to file a lawsuit against Pembroke Pines, North Miami, Homestead and 16 other local governments in the next two weeks.
"The phone has been ringing consistently over the last two weeks," said Weisser, whose West Palm Beach-based firm, Schuler, Halvorson and Weisser has recruited clients through newspaper advertisements. "They are violating people's constitutional rights [in order] to make a buck."
Critics complain that red light cameras violate drivers' due process and equal protection rights. Earlier this year, two separate lawsuits were filed over their use — one in Aventura filed in February, and one in the Tampa suburb of Temple Terrace, filed in April.
The Aventura case is scheduled for a summary judgment hearing on Nov. 10; the other case is in the beginning stages.
Cities say the cameras deter drivers from running red lights, prevent accidents and save lives. The cameras snap a photo of the car's license plate, then owners receive a citation in the mail.
Pembroke Pines Police Chief Dan Giustino said before the city's camera at Southwest 129th Avenue and Pines Boulevard went live in April 2008, the city recorded 19 accidents over a 16 month period. Just nine wrecks have occurred over the past 16 months.
But lawyers for the fined drivers argue that local governments are not permitted under state law to regulate stop lights. They say that under state law, police officers cite drivers who run red lights and those tickets can be contested in county court. Yet in cities with red light cameras, no officer witnesses any infraction and it is the vehicle's owner, not the driver, who is cited. In addition, the owner can only appeal to a special magistrate, who typically works for the city.
"It's like having the officer who wrote you the ticket rule on your case," said attorney Brett Luskin, who filed the original Aventura suit. "It's a flat violation of state law. I want the judge to declare these things are invalid."
The state attorney general issued an opinion in 2005 that cities cannot use cameras to issue traffic citations. Cities sidestep that by citing car owners with code violations that do not count against driving records. Fines generally cost $125 for first-time offenders.
The state does not allow red light cameras to be posted on state property. A bill that would have permitted it died in the waning hours of the last legislative session. The bill, which would have included a $150 fine, received overwhelming approval in both chambers. But it died after the Senate failed to win support for its proposal to keep a larger portion for state coffers.
In Pembroke Pines, Broward's first city to install such a camera, city leaders are moving ahead with plans to erect five more red light cameras. On Wednesday night, their camera provider, American Traffic Solutions, agreed to share the cost of providing refunds and defending the city in court.
Still, city attorney Sam Goren conceded the lawsuits could have a "persuasive effect."
In Juno Beach, the city intends to install cameras by mid-October at Donald Ross Road and Ellison Wilson Road, and Donald Ross Road and U.S. 1.
"We hope to improve driver behavior in terms of traffic law compliance and thereby reduce accidents," said Police Chief Dennis Weiner. "It's not uncommon for people [to file suits] whether or not they have a good legal basis."