Local governments can still use red-light cameras to catch traffic violators, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday, resolving conflicting decisions from lower courts on how the devices should be used in ticketing traffic infractions.
The court's decision to uphold a 2010 state law allowing local governments to use the cameras stemmed from a ticket given to South Florida driver Luis Torres Jimenez, who sued the city of Aventura saying the city had ceded too much authority by allowing its red-light camera vendor to review footage of possible violations.
Attorneys acknowledged that Jimenez had committed a traffic infraction by making an illegal right turn on red but argued that allowing American Traffic Solutions, the camera vendor, to initially review footage before sending it to police created an “unconstitutional filter” that ceded too much enforcement power to a third party.
A Miami-Dade County judge had overturned the ticket, after a state appeals court ruled in 2014 that a separate red-light camera program in Hollywood was unconstitutional because the cameras delegated too much enforcement oversight to the private vendor.
But the Third District Court of Appeal declared Aventura’s use of the cameras within the bounds of the law in 2016, and the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments for the case in February, agreed. Justices said private vendors can review footage so long as the decision to cite drivers remains with the city.
The Legislature's bill "permitted a local government’s agent to review information from red-light cameras for any purpose short of making the probable cause determination as to whether a traffic infraction was committed,” wrote Justice Barbara Pariente in an opinion joined by Justice Peggy Quince and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. "It is clear the Legislature contemplated that the agent would conduct an initial review of those photographs or video or both, before a traffic enforcement officer determines whether probable cause exists."
Each red-light ticket costs $158 and doesn’t go on a driver’s record unless it isn’t paid within 60 days of notice. But the case had wider implications for the rest of the state, where red-light cameras have been an ongoing source of controversy.
Some state lawmakers have tried since the 2010 law to repeal use of the devices: A bill this year, sponsored by state Reps. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, and Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, would have shut down the devices by mid-2021, but the proposal failed to make it past its first Senate committee after passing the House. Avila pushed a similar bill last year that also died in the Senate.
Supporters of the cameras have said they improve traffic safety, though critics say the cameras and their resulting fines have primarily become a revenue source for red-light camera vendors and local governments instead. According to an impact study, camera fines are estimated to bring in about $77 million annually, with about 58 percent going to the state.
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, before the 2010 law that allowed local governments to cite running a red light on camera as a state traffic violation.
A federal class-action lawsuit against dozens of local government agencies using the devices and American Traffic Solutions — which operates Aventura’s cameras and is one of the industry’s largest vendors — has also sought to force the return of fines paid under the law. The suit has been pending the outcome of Jimenez’s challenge and now seems unlikely to proceed.
Theodore J. Leopold, one of the attorneys leading the suit, said the team needed to review the court’s decision to determine how it would affect the case. Depending on the scope of the court’s opinion, “it’s going to create issues in terms of our ability to go forward,” he said.
But Edward Guedes, whose firm represented several cities named as defendants in the case, was blunt: “I don’t see any basis for it anymore."
In December, Miami city commissioners voted to end that city's red-light program, citing concerns about the financial cost borne by lower-income residents. But several cities elsewhere in Miami-Dade and statewide continue to use cameras to monitor traffic, including Tampa, and some cities like Pembroke Pines and Boynton Beach started their programs back up last year.
After Thursday's decision, Guedes suggested more may follow suit. After the 2014 decision declaring Hollywood's use of the devices unconstitutional, several cities ended their own red-light camera programs, some out of fear of litigation or liability, he said.
"I am hopeful that in light of today’s decision, those local governments will revisit [those programs]," he said. "If they still believe those programs are worthwhile from a traffic safety perspective, the legal risk has now been reduced or eliminated."