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Judge Puts Stop Light on Red Light Camera Cases

A judge has stayed hundreds of thousands of pending red light camera tickets issued in Miami-Dade County pending a possible appeal.

County Court Judge Steve Leifman issued the stay Oct. 16 after sending one case to the Third District Court of Appeal for a ruling that could affect the entire red light camera program.

"Countywide, there are currently hundreds of thousands of red light camera citations backlogged due to a stay requested by defense counsel," Leifman said in his order. "In fairness to all other municipalities with red light camera programs, this court finds no reason why the stay now granted in this case should not be consistently applied."

Leifman's ruling follows a similar one by a Tampa judge. In that case, the Second District Court of Appeal on Friday agreed to hear the case, setting up a possible conflict with the Third DCA.

Lawyers on both sides say the issue of the legality of the red light camera could be headed to the Florida Supreme Court.

"If either DCA is conflicting, I would expect this will go to the Florida Supreme Court," said Ted Hollander, whose firm, the Ticket Clinic, has had tens of thousands of the tickets thrown out.

In the last year or two, cities throughout Florida have come under fire for their remote camera ticket programs. Levies totaled more than $200 million since 2010.

Cities say the program makes the roads safer, while detractors claim the system amounts to a money grab for cities and the state, generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Each $158 ticket generates $83 for the state and $75 for the city where it was issued.

Lawyers from the Ticket Clinic and other firms have challenged the tickets, claiming they improperly delegate police powers to a private company, which screens intersection photos and decides whether a violation occurred before sending data to a city traffic infraction officer to authorize a citation. Thousands of tickets have been thrown out of court as a result.

Broward County dismissed all of its red light camera ticket cases after the West Palm Beach appellate court essentially ruled the tickets illegal in Arem v. Hollywood.

The state attorney general's office has intervened in more than 100 cases, including the one decided by Leifman. The Ticket Clinic represented a driver ticketed by the city of Aventura.

On Nov. 13, the judge ruled he was bound by the Fourth DCA opinion and dismissed the case. However, he also sent the case to the Third District Court of Appeal for clarification, citing the class action cases as a reason, and issued the stay, freezing all other county cases.

The Hollywood ruling didn't address the issue of whether the transmission of data about tickets must come from the issuing officer, among other substantive matters, Leifman noted.

Slim Record

Since the "opinion was premised on a narrowly developed record that did not include the multitude of facts established in the trial court below, an opinion from the District Court of Appeal that has all of the decisive facts before it is very much needed," Leifman wrote. A decision "based on a full record would not only resolve issues in Miami-Dade County cases but also clarify issues in cases in the 12 other counties" with red light camera tickets.

Leifman said, "The disruption of camera programs, along with the cost to defend class action lawsuits and legally rebut the Arem defense in multitudes of trial courts across that state by over 80 local governments, is a matter of great public importance."

Leifman is the associate administrative judge in charge of the county court criminal division and has jurisdiction over all traffic court matters.

The Third DCA has not decided whether to accept jurisdiction in the case.

Ed Guedes of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman in Coral Gables, who represents 45 cities on the red light camera issue, said he was pleased with both the Miami and Tampa trial court rulings and appeals.

"This is great," he said. "Local governments have taken the position that it's important for another DCA to look at these issues because it's our belief that the Fourth DCA made its decision on an incomplete record. It simply did not have all the facts before it on how Hollywood's program operation, and as we know bad facts make bad law."

Hollander said he expects government agencies to continue to fight every adverse ruling aggressively, possibly seeking a showdown at the Florida Supreme Court.

"Our opinion is that the cities and the state will continue to defend the program because there are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake for the cities, the state, and the camera companies," he said. "When so much is on the line, I don't expect them to concede without a fight."

A class action seeking repayment of fines has been stayed by U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno in Miami while public agencies appeal to be dismissed as defendants based on sovereign immunity.