Aventura - Sunny Isles

Aventura, other city red-light camera programs circumvented state law, Florida high court rules

Tens of thousands of South Florida motorists could be in line for refunds in fines after the state’s high court ruled Thursday that Aventura and other cities overstepped their authority in creating red-light camera programs between 2008 and 2010.

The ruling from the Florida Supreme Court was a victory for critics who have long insisted the cities created their own illegal sham hearings, circumventing state law, in a blatant grab for cash from motorists.

“These were kangaroo courts trumped up for the purposes of extorting money from drivers,” said Hallandale Beach lawyer Bret Lusskin, who represented the motorist in the Aventura case. “They had nothing to do with justice.”

The ruling does not affect any fines levied after July 1, 2010, when a Florida law went into effect making red-light camera violations a state traffic violation.

Thursday’s ruling also comes just months after efforts in the Florida Legislature to repeal the use of red-light cameras fizzled.

Red-light cameras have been a divisive issue since cities began installing cameras at intersections, then mailing violations to surprised drivers. Supporters insisted that the program was designed to enhance safety on the roads.

But many drivers – before 2010 and now – still bristle when they open the mail to see an image of their car supposedly running a red light.

“Hallelujah,” North Bay Village resident Philip Kane said upon learning of Thursday’s court ruling.

Kane said he received two red-light violations in Bal Harbor several years ago, paying out about some $200.

“It was way easier to pay them. I just wanted to make them go away,” Kane said. “The whole concept of it is offensive to me and I’m not a crazed driver.”

Between 2008 and July 2010, red-light camera violations were not state traffic tickets but city “code violations.” In Aventura, motorists contesting violations had to go to hearings at City Hall — which they claimed were biased and unfair.

A slew of lawsuits followed, and in February 2010, a Miami-Dade judge ruled that Aventura’s enforcement system circumvented state traffic laws. Aventura created the first red-light program in Miami-Dade.

But a Miami appeals court overturned the judge’s decision, saying the program was indeed lawful.

The Florida Supreme Court took up the issue because of conflicting decisions by appeals courts: in Orlando, judges ruled that the city’s program did indeed circumvent state law.

In response to the uproar about the programs, the Florida Legislature passed a new law that made red-light camera infractions a state violation. The statute went into effect July 1, 2010, and violations are now heard in front of traffic court magistrates.

The Supreme Court ruling, a 5-2 decision, was decided in the case of Richard Masone, who sued Aventura, and Michael Udowychenko, who sued Orlando.

While the case was being considered by the high court, many cities have agreed to pay out settlements to drivers.

The firm of West Palm Beach attorney Jason Weisser sued at least 26 municipalities, representing hundreds of thousands of motorists who had collectively been fined an estimated $30 million.

“It’s monumental. It’s a landmark case,” David Kerner, a lawyer with Weisser’s firm, said of Thursday’s high court ruling. “I think it’s going to push the cities toward having to refund all of the money that was collected unlawfully.”

American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based company that provides the camera equipment for many of the cities that run red-light programs, paid $1.2 million as part of settlements involving many of the suits.

It’s not yet clear how individual cities will handle potential refunds. So far, in South Florida, only Pembroke Pines, Sweetwater and Florida City have settled, giving motorists only partial refunds.

In the Pines, the city reportedly set up a $41,000 fund to credit drivers who were fined between 2008 and 2010. In that time period, 3,000 tickets before July 1, 2010, raking in $450,000 from the program.

“We figured, rather than go through this additional two or three years of litigation, we were comfortable doing what we thought was right for the city and resolving it then,” Pembroke Pines Assistant City Attorney Michael Cirullo said Thursday.

In cities such as North Miami and Coral Gables, the lawsuits had been waiting in limbo until Thursday’s decision.

“We’re going to have to take a look at the case and see what we have to do," said Coral Gables City Attorney Craig Leen. “We will do whatever the law requires.”

The same goes for Miami Gardens, where 43-year-old secretary Pilar Diaz, got a ticket in 2009 for turning onto State Road 441 from Miami Gardens Drive.

Now, Diaz said she’ll try to recoup the $150 she paid to the city – and she suspects others will too.

“I think people will still take advantage of it, especially with the way the economy is today,” Diaz said.

Aventura has not paid out any settlement claims, according to City Manager Eric Soroka said Thursday. The number of citations and how much the city made between 2008 and 2010 was not immediately available.

In Orlando, the other city that came under scrutiny in the Florida Supreme Court decision, officials did not want to talk about possible refunds. There between 2008 and 2010, the city issued 48,464 citations and collected $4.4 million in fines.

City spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser hailed the program, which is still in operation.

“Not only has it saved the lives and prevented injuries to citizens and visitors, but it has also allowed the Orlando Police Department to address other public safety challenges, ultimately, making Orlando’s streets safer,” she said in a statement.

This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.

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