How to Fix the Red Light Camera Dilemma

Orlando Stops Red Light Camera Program
Orlando's "Stops" program. A Red Light Camera
program still using unauthorized signage.
Red Light Cameras are here to stay. If you don't like that it's too bad - get use to them. There is way too much money coming from them (because people continue to run them) for any municipality to give them up. Upset, disgusted, mad? Good. Now let's talk about fixing the problems faced by the municipalities.

When these Red Light Camera companies came to Florida to peddle their wares it was like a dream come true for the cities and towns under the budget crunch from the "great recession." The Red Light Camera companies came to them promising them millions so it was no surprise that the bureaucrats, politicians, and accountants looked past all the legalities straight to the bottom line. Before anyone thought to look towards consequences we had major cities contracting with these companies to throw up the first of many red light cameras.  All seemed well at first. The money rolled in and all were happy (except, of course, for the public which was again being fleeced of their money by government).

Then the consequences hit. You see, Florida law requires the traffic laws to be uniform across the state. Makes sense, we take just one test to be able to drive throughout Florida therefore the laws should be uniform. Still, it is hard to believe these city politicians could not see past their own greed and recognize that problem, but they didn't. With all these municipalities formulating their own ordinances to enforce the red light camera tickets it was not long before someone challenged it. And someone did.

Challenging an infraction typically requires that the driver, the person fleeced of his money, to pay for an appeal. An appeal can take over a year to be ruled upon. In this case it was appealed and the circuit court agreed with the driver. Unfortunately, that decision was "appealed" to the district court of appeal and that took more time.

During this appellate process the State of Florida decided there was money to be had and, oh yeah, all these traffic laws have to be uniform. So the Florida legislature drew up a bill and passed it creating a new Florida statute specifically for red light camera citations (s. 316.0083, Fla. Stat.). To say it was thrown together in a rush is an understatement. The legislature was trying to create a legal process for something that had already started. It was, has been, and is a hard steep climb.

You see, the problem the state has when law enforcement officers rely on machines to charge people is the ability to establish that the "machine" was working properly when it was used. For example, and as a comparison, the use of a radar gun or laser to measure a car's speed for the issuance of a speeding ticket. The law enforcement officer can't just come into court and say my radar gun told me the driver was speeding. How does anyone know if the radar was working properly or malfunctioned? So instead, the officer must show that the radar was working properly on that day. How does he do this? He follows the administrative code promulgated by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles that sets forth specific requirements, including regular maintenance schedules and daily testing. Now the officer can simply comply by the administrative code for radar guns and the reliability is presumed by the court. Simple, right.

Wrong. Like I pointed out. The cities jumped the gun and got caught up in multimillion dollar contracts with companies way before any framework for the red light cameras was put in place. The state tried to remedy this by the passage of laws setting forth time-tables to get the infrastructure in place (regulations, i.e., administrative codes). The scramble was on but, remember when this started, the great recession wasn't over (by definition it was over but the economy had not changed gears and God knows what it is doing). There was no money. The Florida Department of Transportation sent out a simple letter instead of promulgating any codes for the testing and maintenance of the red light cameras. Big problem but that wasn't all.

Florida Red Light Camera
Florida red light camera.
You see, these cities really didn't want to pay a high salaried union police officer to sit in an office all day and look at videos. The state apparently didn't want that either. So they passed a law allowing people that were not fully qualified law enforcement officers to sit and watch videos all day. They did make them have to get some training but not to the level of a full police officer (and thus they did not have to pay them much). Unfortunately for the cities, the training required by the state for these video watchers is an 80-hour program established by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In the cities rush to have red light cameras they just hired some ex-cop to train their video watchers in an "equivalent" class - that happened to be only 8-hours long. Yeah, it didn't seem equivalent to me either.  Regardless, the Cities and Red Light Camera companies decided to draw the line in the sand and fight with what they had.

Flash forward to today. We have a mess. Some cities are playing it smart and just dropping tickets that are being challenged by attorneys who fight these cases. Other cities are paying outside law firms ($$$) to represent them in court for these cases. The courts are clogged and confusion reigns.

How can the cities fix this problem? Simple, really. Stop prosecuting these citations until they have properly trained their employees (as required by law) and push the state to promulgate codes that set forth a single established method of maintaining and testing the red light cameras.  Seems rather simple but they have yet to do any of this. Instead they are continuing to spend money prosecuting cases that they know had improperly trained personnel issuing the citations.

What about all us drivers that have to pay for these cameras? All I can tell you is slow down and don't run red lights. As long as the cities are making money these cameras will not be going away. The only way they will go away is if they stop making money. Understand? Once the revenue dries up the companies and cities will invalidate their contracts and the cameras will be removed.

  is an attorney in Orlando practicing criminal defense and traffic law.

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