Score one in the courts for red light cameras. Attorneys challenging the constitutionality of the devices have lost the first of four cases pending in the state Fourth District Court of Appeal, which includes Broward and Palm Beach counties.
The case, the first legal argument over the state's red light camera law to reach such a high level of judicial review, could have had the odd effect of stopping cops from writing tickets when they saw a driver run a red light, leaving that chore up to the cameras.
Drivers could have been home free when they blew through any intersection without a camera.
But last week, the appellate judges struck down the decision of Broward County Judge Fred Berman, made in June 2011.
Berman had ruled that tickets for running red lights are unconstitutional when issued by a police officer because they carry a higher fine than red light camera citations — about $260 versus $158 — and impose points on the driver's license.
Lawyers defending Davie driver Marvin Arrington claimed that the double standard violates the United States Constitution's and the Florida Constitution's equal protection provisions.
But in their ruling last week, state appellate judges Carole Y. Taylor and Cory J. Ciklin said that drivers who get a ticket from a cop and car owners who get a ticket in the mail from a camera are in different situations, so the different penalties are legal.
The upshot: For now, anyway, municipalties in Broward and Palm Beach counties can legally keep using both police officers and cameras to ticket drivers running red lights.
Jason Foreman, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer who argued Arrington's case at the appellate level, said it would have been a very big deal if Berman's ruling had been upheld.
"The ramifications would have been tremendous, because … the officers could not have written red light tickets and could focus on other areas," Foreman said.
However, three other challenges to the red light camera statute passed by the Florida Legislature two years ago law are stil pending before the Fourth DCA. And Ted Hollander, a Broward County lawyer for the Ticket Clinic law firm, said lawyers like him who are fighting the law have a lot of other constitutional arguments that haven't been tested at the appellate level.
The ultimate goal, Hollander said, is to get the Florida Supreme Court to find the statute that empowers the cameras to issue tickets unconstitutional. That would probably lead the Legislature to substantially rewrite it or to get rid of it.
In Broward County, three judges have ruled in favor of Ticket Clinic challenges to the cameras' constitutionality. The Florida State Attorney's Office has appealed all three.
One of the challenges, from Hollywood, says the law violates the Constitution's equal protection clause because when a vehicle runs a red light, only the first-listed owner of that vehicle gets ticketed. Other registered owners don't.
Two other challenges, one from Davie and the other from Fort Lauderdale, claim it's a violation of due process that the tickets are issued by a corporation based in Arizona, rather than by a police officer in the city where the alleged offense happened.
In Palm Beach County, no equivalent arguments over the cameras have yet reached a judge, Hollander said. To challenge the red light camera statute's constitutionality in county court, attorneys must first challenge it on all other possible grounds and lose.
The evidence-related arguments that the Ticket Clinic is using to fight people's tickets in Palm Beach County win much more often then not, Hollander said. Defense lawyers have won about 1,000 cases and lost almost none in that county, he said.
"So there's a lot pending," Hollander said. "No landmark decisions have been made besides [the Fourth DCA's last week's]."
There's another possible piece of fallout from the appellate court's decision. The West Palm Beach-based judges wrote that a red light camera's ticket should never result in a "personal" repercussion, citing the points on a driver's license as an example.
While cameras don't actually hand out points, Foreman said, drivers who fight their ticket in court and lose do get a notation on their driving record that they ran a red light. That's personal, too, Foreman argues, and anyone with such a mark on their record will now have a great legal case for getting it taken off.
"I think someone could go to the DMV and ask for it to be removed," he said.
Lawyers at the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles have not yet considered whether the agency will do that, said spokeswoman Kirsten Olsen-Doolan.
"The court's opinion upholds current Florida statute, which is what we are operating under regarding red light violations," Olsen-Doolan said.