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News Story
Updated: 03/03/2013 08:01:00AM

Florida’s red light ‘gotcha law’

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S.L. Frisbie

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Here’s a fun little quiz for all you scofflaws and jail house lawyers.

Name the crime for which:

• You are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

• No witness is required.

• The state has 30 days to notify you of the charge against you.

• The fine is $158, automatically increased by $106 to $264 if not paid within 30 days.

There’s more, but that’s a good start.

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The law referred to allows local governments to send you a traffic citation, based on a photograph showing that your car (no matter who was driving it) ran a red light.

Although touted as a traffic safety measure, the law is a financial bonanza for the companies that sell the systems, as well as the cities that buy them.

Over in Pinellas County, the clerk of courts, Ken Burke, who has the dubious privilege of sending fine notices to those caught by Florida’s red light “gotcha law,” wants cities in his county to quit using red light cameras.

He says the system is flawed, in part because it does not warn motorists (or non-motorists) that if they want to contest the tickets, they are in jeopardy of being fined another $106.

And he’s tired of taking the heat for everything that’s wrong with the law.

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As for this latter problem, I suggest that he put a prominent listing on the notices of the names and phone numbers of the municipal officials responsible for installation of the cameras, and hence for the fines they impose.

Sound like a cop-out? Take a look at your next TRIM (Truth in Millage) notice from the tax collector. It tells you which agency of government is responsible for each tax, and when a public hearing will be held. Your tax collector isn’t going to take the heat.

Burke said citizens “are upset with the poor communications, insufficient information, and resulting unfair penalties.”

For my money, the main thing to be upset about is that it is just plain bad law.

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Don’t take me wrong. I do not defend red light violators. I would like to see the city of Bartow station an officer 24/7 at the intersection of Broadway and Van Fleet and write a ticket to every southbound motorist (especially semi-truck drivers) who makes a left turn onto Van Fleet after the light turns red. It’s typically two to four vehicles on every cycle of the light.

On the other hand, I also believe in enforcement of laws against murder and bank robbery, but not on the kind of flimsy “evidence” relied on by the red light gotcha law.

To secure a conviction for murder, it is necessary to prove more than that somebody was killed; it also is necessary to prove who did it.

Florida’s gotcha law requires only proof that a car ran a red light, not who was driving the car.

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The absurdity is underscored by the fact that the law designates running a red light as a “non-moving violation” if the only proof is a photo of the license plate. What is a non-moving violation? Something like a burned out turn indicator bulb.

Clearly, running a red light requires that a vehicle be moving. But by declaring red light running to be a non-moving violation, the assessment of points on a driver’s license is waived. Unless, that is, the ticket is unpaid after 30 days, in which case a “uniform traffic citation” is issued.

While cities declare that revenue is no consideration in their installation of the lights, St. Petersburg reported an increase of 3,600 percent over one year; 1,025 tickets written by officers who saw a driver run a red light, more than 36,000 fines assessed by virtue of a camera that saw a license tag run a light. And that is at only 10 intersections.

That’s more than $5.6 million in fines, but remember, it’s not about the money.

I am reminded of the days when a major expectation of a small town police department was that it bring in more money in fines than it took to run the department. Only back then, city officials would admit it, at least privately.

At a time when serious dialogue is taking place over whether it is good government to install security cameras on streets in high crime areas to catch criminals committing felonies, it seems ridiculous that motorists are being cited for violations with no evidence that they were behind the wheel.

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(S. L. Frisbie is retired. He has received three traffic tickets — two for speeding, one for going around a railroad crossing gate — in 58 years of driving, and he is not proud of any of them. Each was delivered in person by an officer who witnessed the offense.)


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