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Red-light cameras means fewer tickets, higher expense

Good news for drivers caught by red-light cameras: Because of a new state law, your chances of being cited are down dramatically.

Bad news for the courts: Because the infractions are now handled by judges and not city-hired magistrates, an already-strapped system has an extra burden, some officials say.

The new law gives a break to drivers caught on camera making rolling right turns if they're "careful and prudent," in cities that use red-light cameras. Among them are Hallandale Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Pembroke Pines, Palm Springs and West Palm Beach.

Before the law went into effect in July, Hallandale Beach had an ordinance that did not provide for using due care. It issued more than 1,000 tickets a month, some months, to motorists who turned on red without coming to a complete stop.

Since the law, the city has dropped its number of citations significantly. The average now is 200 to 300 per month.

And in all of Broward, only 877 red-light camera violations have been issued since September, according to the clerk of courts.

In Palm Beach County, the courts have processed more than 2,158 tickets since July, when they began tracking their numbers. West Palm Beach, which clears about $10,000 per month in camera fines, has one of the more expansive programs, with cameras at four intersections.

So far, most South Florida cities that allow red-light cameras have just one in operation. But Hallandale Beach expects to add another soon and Pembroke Pines recently approved adding four. Other cities are giving serious consideration to starting the program.

Still, as hundreds of cases make their way through the courts, attorneys across the state have filed various legal challenges to using the cameras.

They argue the cameras are simply revenue generators and are not making roadways any safer. Cities get $75 from each fine paid and the state gets $83, of which it gives counties $15.80.

Drivers do not get points for the violations, because they are considered code enforcement infractions. And the violations are issued to the owner of the vehicle, who may not be the errant driver.

Attorneys say they are winning more cases now because of the "careful and prudent" clause and because they are going to a court outside the city's realm.

The old system was a "true kangaroo court,'' said attorney Bret Lusskin, of the Ticket Cricket in Hallandale Beach. "Because the [magistrate] judge was on the city's payroll, there was absolutely no justice.''

Hallandale Beach on Dec. 10 held the last of its hearings concerning the tickets the city issued before the law changed in July.

Knox Golding, of Hallandale Beach, who was caught making a right turn on red without coming to a complete stop, told the magistrate there was no traffic in the other direction.

"Why wasn't careful and prudent applied back then?'' argued Golding.

Harry Hipler, the general magistrate, told Golding that careful and prudent was not part of the city's law; therefore, there was not much he could do about it.

Hipler said he had no leeway to be fair. "All I can do is determine if there was a violation.''

Of the 267 cases heard under Hallandale Beach's old ordinance, 93 were dismissed, and only five motorists were found not guilty.

At the county courthouses, judges and hearing officers say the red-light cases are time-consuming because a video has to be played repeatedly to determine whether a turn was careful and prudent.

Broward County Clerk of Courts Howard Forman said he expects the red-light cases will get easier to deal over time.

"It's fluid, it's something new, and some of the judges want to be extra careful,'' said Forman. "They want to make sure they rule properly.''

In Palm Beach County, Sharon Bock, the county clerk and comptroller, said the issue has put a financial burden on her court system.

She said her office had to assign two courtroom clerks to input the tickets. The county gets $15.80 from each $158 ticket paid, but it gets nothing when cases are dismissed, or when motorists are found not guilty or they fail to appear.

So far, there have been 650 no-shows, whose licenses have been suspended.

"It's a huge loss,'' Bock said. "It's a completely underfunded mandate.''