MIAMI (CBS4) - Whether you are in favor of them or not, more and more red light cameras are going up in South Florida.
For cities, the state and even the camera manufactures, the record number of cameras has turned into record profits. South Florida's cameras are the most lucrative in the state. In a CBS4 investigation we learned some drivers are being taken for a ride.
This is not a story about whether red light cameras make our roads safer. There are studies that argue both sides of that argument.
What this story is about is fairness.
If two separate drivers make a right turn at a red light, without stopping, a red light camera will catch them.
Here is the unfair part. One driver will get a $158 ticket that could eventually go up to $400. The other will get nothing. We wanted to know why.
CBS4 attended various hearings across South Florida. Driver after driver seemed confused at the hearings. A tape plays in a corner of the room. Each clip showing a driver going through a red light.
One video shows a driver slowly turning right. The driver scratches their head and asks "What exactly is the violation I'm here for?"
A father and son watch the video and begin arguing.
"Let me talk I was driving," the son yells.
Another woman, who is an attorney, questions that she broke the law.
"I just find that hard to believe."
They leave the courtroom feeling they have been taken for a ride – all have lost their red light camera hearings.
"The ticket is for $158?" one asks as the magistrate. No. Since she lost she has to pay an administrative fee. "The ticket will be for $208." the clerk informs her.
The attorney who lost her case is angry.
"The deck is definitely stacked against the violators," said Merna Lucho.
When you think of red light camera violations you probably think of the buffoons blowing through lights, jeopardizing us on the road.
You most probably don't think of people like Edwin Garcia. In October he turned right at a red light, doing 1 or 2 miles an hour. Garcia, a retired police officer, tried to explain to the hearing officer "I cautiously inched out to see if there were any pedestrians trying to cross."
Because he didn't come to a complete stop the red light camera targeted him for a ticket. Then the City of Homestead charged him $125 to contest it.
The hearing officer told Garcia "You have to come to a complete stop." And with that his case was lost. Homestead charges $125 for their administrative court fee; it can go as high as $250. Garcia's $158 ticket for crawling through a light is now $283. More than if he was speeding through a school zone.
Outside the hearing room Garcia shrugged "What defense are you going to put in? They work for the city. They want revenue. It's a way to collect revenue from the poor people."
That sentiment was echoed at red light camera hearings across South Florida.
"Some court," one man yelled as he walked out with his $208 ticket.
Your chances of beating the ticket are extremely slim. After his hearing Juan Garcia questioned "I don't even know if this is legal."
If these people were upset losing, they'd be furious about Miami Springs.
"If the vehicle is traveling less than 15 miles per hour and does not violate anyone's right of or vehicles, it's rejected," said Miami Springs police Sergeant Jimmy Deal.
That's right. Miami Springs won't ticket a driver turning on red light without stopping as long as they adhere to Florida law which requires them to do it carefully and prudently.
When asked how many right on red tickets he had thrown out Deal replied "Hundreds, thousands easily. All because they didn't fit our standard."
Five days a week, Deal sits in front of a computer and reviews thousands of so-called violations.
"This is a rejection," he said after carefully reviewing an alleged violation.
The screen refreshes with the next violation. "Careful and prudent," he said as hit the reject button again.
Another video pops up with a driver crawling right through a red light. It would definitely be a ticket in Homestead, Aventura, North Miami, West Miami and a host of other cities.
"Not here," said Deal who pointed out that as long as there was not a person or car impacted by the turn, the ticket gets trashed.
And there are other cities in South Florida who do that same thing.
So what gives? This is a state law.
How can one city ticket you $158 bucks and another not for the same exact right turn? It has to do with three words in the law; careful and prudent.
"The statute says reasonable and prudent is that you have to stop at the stop bar, before the stop bar, or after the stop bar. You must come to a complete stop," said Aventura Police Major William Washa.
In Miami Springs making the turn at under 15 mph and not impacting another driver or pedestrian falls under the definition of "careful and prudent."
"Each municipality, city is going to have their interpretation," said Deal.
Last year legislators added text saying no one could be ticketed at a red light as long as they came to a complete stop at some point. Many cities took the language and ran with it. The impact is a record windfall of cash - red light revenue is up 215%.
"No the legislature never intended that. And that's why they didn't say you have to come to a complete stop. They had said you had to make a careful and prudent turn," said state Senator Jeff Brandes.
He would know. Brandes wrote the law. He believes the cities were looking for a way to make money.
"The cameras were sold as a safety device but ultimately they have become a backdoor tax increase." he said.
It may be. Since the quote "misinterpretation" cities have had a record windfall of cash.
Brandes, along with Miami Representative Frank Artiles, is pushing legislation to either eliminate the cameras or slash the ticket prices and record profits. Artiles feels something has to change.
"This is a revenue generator. Make no mistake about it. And if this is about safety then they would support my bill," said Artiles.
"Those funds should go toward safety programs. Toward intersection safety, pedestrian safety, bicyclist safety. It should all be about safety. It shouldn't be about revenue," said Brandes.
If you have found this story interesting thus far, here is something fascinating.
When you get a red light camera ticket you have a choice. You can challenge your ticket at City Hall and more often than not lose. Or you can take it to your county's traffic court where the outcome could be dramatically different.
In the county court the interpretation of the law is as Brandes intended. Careful and prudent - not you must always stop. For two days CBS4 News watched as hundreds of cases were dismissed.
In fact a Miami-Dade judge reviewed the very same camera in Homestead that resulted in $283 tickets for many drivers. It was the same intersection and same rolling stop. The only difference was that it was a hearing put on by the county instead of the City of Homestead. In most cases, the judge dismissed them. As long as no one was impacted by the turn the judge ruled within seconds.
Johnny Hall was one of the lucky ones to get dismissed. In Homestead he would have lost and paid $283 dollars. At county court he was dismissed.
"I guess the city has their own laws and the county has their laws," said Hall after his hearing.
When informed it was the same law in both courts, State of Florida law, Hall wondered "Then why would I have lost in the City of Homestead and here it was dismissed?"
It's a good question and one that frustrates the thousands of drivers like Garcia who have and continue to pay millions in right on red ticket fines.
"I don't think they are fair," Garcia sighed as he went to pay his ticket.
Next week the legislative session will begin in Tallahassee. Both legislators plan to move forward their reforms forward to fix the problem. Count on CBS4 to follow the developments as they happen.
There are 20 plus cities in South Florida that have red light cameras. Click Here to see a list of their policies and fines.
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