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Red-light cameras’ future may hinge on court decision in Oldsmar case

— Clearwater resident Tammy Trinh was headed northbound on Forest Lake Boulevard when a red-light camera snapped her running a red light as she turned right onto Tampa Road.

A $158 fine from the city of Oldsmar soon followed in the mail.

Instead of paying, Trinh opted to fight the ticket.

That single, unremarkable case has become the latest battleground over the future of red-light cameras in the state, with Arizona camera firm American Traffic Solutions looking to protect its multimillion-dollar contracts in Florida against a coalition of traffic attorneys determined to shutter red-light cameras statewide.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal recently agreed to hear the case after Olds­mar appealed a circuit judge’s decision to dismiss Trinh’s ticket. The outcome could affect not only whether Trinh has to pay her fine but whether camera programs in Tampa, Temple Terrace, New Port Richey, Gulfport and Hillsborough County are operating legally.

With so much at stake, ATS is picking up the city of Oldsmar’s legal bills and has hired high-end South Florida law firm Weiss Serota Helfman Cole and Bierman to represent the city in appellate court.

The case has also captured the attention of Attorney General Pam Bondi, who previously filed an intervention brief supporting Oldsmar and other red-light camera programs across Florida. The state’s share of red-light camera fines totaled more than $52 million in 2015.

Hollander and Associates, the firm representing Trinh, argued in the circuit court that Oldsmar illegally delegated to the camera company the enforcement of red-light violations and the issuance of citations. The firm used the same argument last year to win a similar case against the city of Hollywood in the 4th District Court of Appeal, leading cities in Palm Beach and Broward counties to suspend their camera programs.

Circuit Judge William Overton said he would have ruled for Oldsmar but was bound by the 4th District Court ruling. The issues raised by the case, he wrote, are of “great public importance.”

Hollander and Associates have more than Oldsmar’s camera program in its sights. The firm, which also does business as The Ticket Clinic, is behind several lawsuits challenging cameras in about 70 communities across Florida, including Tampa. Its goal is to close down camera programs across the state and seek reimbursements for ticketed drivers.

Jeff Reynolds, an attorney with the firm, said any 2nd District ruling will be significant because it is likely to be the first appellate court to rule on the cameras in the wake of the 4th District’s decision.

“If they confirm the 4th DCA opinion, it could be the death knell for the camera programs the way they are now,” he said.

Should the 2nd DCA side with Oldsmar and create a conflicting appellate ruling, the case might end up going to the Florida Supreme Court, Reynolds added.

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Oldsmar’s decision to go to bat for red-light cameras is somewhat puzzling. The city had cameras at only four intersections and this year suspended ticketing after its city council in September approved a budget without any funding for the camera program.

Now, the city and ATS are disputing whether that amounted to a breach of the city’s contract. Nonetheless, the city is working with the company to defend its camera program lest other drivers also challenge earlier citations, said Randy Mora, Oldsmar assistant city attorney.

Oldsmar’s red-light camera operation is typical of the setup that ATS uses with other Florida communities. Workers with the camera company review video and photos and refer potential violations to sworn law enforcement officers, who then decide if a citation is warranted by clicking on “Accept.”

Lawsuits claim that process violates state law by delegating law enforcement authority to review potential citations and to issue tickets to a third-party company.

“We’re seeing multiple municipalities having to defend their program, and Oldsmar is one of them,” Mora said. “In an effort to protect the program and because we don’t agree with the conclusions reached, the matter has been appealed.”

With cameras at 57 intersections, Tampa has one of the state’s biggest red-light camera programs, reflecting Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s championing of the devices.

City attorneys are keeping tabs on the Oldsmar case while fighting their own case against Hollander and Associates, which was filed in circuit court. City Attorney Julia Mandell has repeatedly stated she believes the city’s camera program is within the law.

“We have consistently taken the position that every program is unique and we should have the right to litigate our own program on its own merits,” Mandell said.

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