In Aventura, you’ll get a ticket if a traffic camera catches you turning on a red light at 15 miles per hour. In Key Biscayne, the threshold is 25 miles per hour. Over in West Miami, you’ll get cited if you turn at only 10 miles per hour.
That lack of uniformity from city to city violates state law, a Miami judge said this week, a ruling that potentially could lead to the dismissal of thousands of traffic citations and more legal battles over the validity of Florida’s deeply unpopular red-light camera programs.
“How is a driver to know that the guidelines of the [red-light camera programs] vary from municipality to municipality?” Miami-Dade Judge Steven Leifman wrote in his 8-page order ruling against the city of Aventura and its red-light program.
The lawyer who represented the driver in the case believes the judge’s decision will be upheld in higher court, producing big ripple effects in the on-going controversy over red-light cameras. “The ruling will affect every single one of the citations that are issued right now, or have been issued in the last couple years,” said Louis Arslanian, of Miami’s Ticket Clinic firm.
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Still, the ruling won’t affect cases en masse right away. The judge didn’t dismiss any citations yet, delaying action in the case so that a Miami’s appeals court can consider the issue.
Drivers, don’t hold your breath. Police departments still issue citations for red-light violations. The legal fight could take years, and may even wind up before the Florida Supreme Court.
Still, South Florida ticket lawyers say motorists can challenge citations by citing the judge’s order. But some advise that it’s better to pay the $158 fine cities offer before the citation becomes a state traffic ticket, which carries heavier fines, points on your driving record and elevated insurance costs.
“It may still be in your interest to pay the $158 civil fine,” said Miami ticket lawyer Randy Maultasch. “I tell people it’s akin to getting an expensive parking ticket.”
The judge’s ruling comes six months after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that local governments can still use red-light cameras — operated by private companies — to catch traffic violators.
In that case, a motorist named Luis Jimenez argued that Aventura’s red-light program was unlawful because it gave the private vendor, American Traffic Solutions, too much authority to review video and images of traffic violations. Justices disagreed, saying state law allows for those companies to forward the images to trained police officers who ultimately make the call on whether to issue a traffic citation.
Supporters of the cameras say they improve traffic safety, but critics maintain the cameras and their resulting fines are just a money grab by local governments and the camera companies.
The use of the cameras has been a consistent target for legal action. Aventura’s own program — the first of its kind in Miami-Dade — had been the subject of several lawsuits since its beginning in 2008. In 2010, state lawmakers passed a law that allowed local governments to cite running a red light on camera as a state traffic violation.
In the case decided this week, a motorist named Lee Stein challenged an Aventura red-light citation issued in 2014. His lawyers targeted ATS, the largest private vendor in Florida that runs over a dozen red-light programs in Miami-Dade.
At issue: a form called “Business Rules Questionnaire,” which allows cities to choose their own criteria for traffic enforcement — like the speed of a turn, or if cars need to stop behind the lines of a crosswalk. Judge Leifman, who runs Miami-Dade’s traffic-court division, agreed with Stein.
“There is nothing ‘uniform’ in the operation of various red-light camera programs,” Leifman wrote.
Aventura’s city manager did not respond to requests for comment. A representative for ATS, which has rebranded itself Verra Mobility, said the program complies with the law.
“As the courts have said, all that matters is that each camera-enforced violation is issued only after an independent determination by law enforcement that the camera captured a red light violation under Florida law,” said spokesman Charles Territo. “We are confident that the sworn law enforcement officers reviewing the many thousands of dangerous red light violations throughout the state are applying Florida law.”