Are Red Light Camera Tickets Always Legitimate? A Fort Lauderdale Traffic Offenses Criminal Defense Lawyer Asks

March 23, 2009 by David S. Seltzer

More and more cities in South Florida and Central Florida are adding red-light cameras to their arsenal of tools to catch traffic offenders. Cities including Orlando and Apopka already have the cameras, the Orlando Sentinel said March 15, and many other municipalities are considering them, including Delray Beach, Winter Park, Tallahassee, Clermont and Kissimmee, as well as Orange County. In fact, state legislators are considering a law that would standardize how red light cameras are used. Generally, cameras are set to take a photo whenever the associated traffic light turns red, and drivers caught in the intersection are cited $75 to $500 by matching the license plate number in the picture to DMV records.

The cameras are praised by municipal officials as a cost-effective way to catch more red-light runners and reduce the number of serious accidents at intersections. As Winter Garden police chief George Brennan told the Sentinel, law enforcement believes that “cameras don’t lie.” But as a Miami criminal defense lawyer, I know it’s not so simple. For one thing, cameras do lie, in a way -- by omitting details in the scene that would change many police officers’ minds about whether the driver deserves a ticket. People who lent their cars to friends, people who made legal right turns on red and people who were trying to avoid an accident have all been cited -- and had their appeals denied.

And those objections don’t even touch the issue of possible flaws in the technology, including problems with how human beings administer it. As a Fort Lauderdale cyber crimes criminal defense attorney, I know very well that innocent people can end up criminally charged because of problems with technology, or how law enforcement uses technology. As this TV news report shows, one Albuquerque man got a ticket for turning right on a green arrow -- which didn’t show up on the video the city took, thanks to the camera’s low frame rate and low resolution. He successfully fought his ticket.

Even more importantly, there’s evidence that red light cameras actually make Florida roads less safe. In 2008, the University of South Florida brought out a study of the cameras showing that they actually increase rear-end accidents by giving drivers a reason to stop short when they reach an intersection with a camera. By contrast, accidents involving red-light runners were decreasing before the cameras became popular. Studies showing the cameras reduce accidents are generally flawed, the university’s press release said -- and funded by the auto insurance industry, which stands to profit from the cameras because more citations and accidents increase insurance premiums.

If red light cameras aren’t doing much for safety, why are Florida municipalities still considering them? One answer is that they consistently drive up revenues for the city or county that owns them. Police officers can’t be posted at every intersection -- but cameras can be. Even in a small city, this can add up to hundreds of extra dollars in fines per day. And it’s not just disgruntled drivers who see the financial motive -- a retired Florida Highway Patrol trooper told the Sentinel that cameras are “simply a revenue-generating device cloaked under the guise of public safety.”

More and more, drivers are fighting back, in part by arguing that photograph-only evidence denies them the Constitutional right to confront their accusers. I am proud to say that I am the South Florida criminal defense attorney representing one of these drivers. People who run red lights should absolutely be held responsible, but I believe red light cameras, with all their flaws, are not the right solution.