FORT LAUDERDALE- Some South Florida cities say they're spending tens of thousands of dollars to defend fines stemming from images of drivers running red lights snapped by automatic cameras.
When state lawmakers agreed to allow red light cameras last year, cities hoped to collect millions of dollars in fines, thanks to the images captured by a network of cameras installed from Pembroke Pines to Fort Lauderdale.
But an increasing number of drivers are fighting their tickets. That means police departments spend more time than planned reviewing tapes and preparing evidence files for court, Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley said.
"The rulings have been going against us, and it's been very labor-intensive for our department," Adderley said.
Fort Lauderdale started its red-light enforcement in September and issued about 70 tickets a day for the first three months. In December, the number of tickets issued each day dropped to 30 and the average last month was 15 tickets.
Meanwhile, the costs are soaring. There is now a backlog of 1,000 cases. The city has assigned attorneys to prosecute cases at the court's direction instead of relying on police officers as is done with other traffic citations.
City commissioners think they may collect as little as $500,000 in red light camera fines. Their budget depended on bringing in $3 million from the tickets.
Cases have been dismissed because cities couldn't prove the employees reviewing the tapes were certified to do so, because officers did not have certified copies of vehicle registrations and because judges have required photographic evidence that the car had not entered the intersection before the light turned red.
In Broward County court last month, 53 red light violations were scheduled for trial. In the first case, the court rejected Pembroke Pines' evidence as inadmissible and unreliable. The rest of the cases were dismissed or continued as a result.
"We are in uncharted waters," said Sam Goren, Pembroke Pines' city attorney. "We believe the statute is explicit, and the cities are making every effort to follow the statute. As this evolves, I think it will become more consistent."
Pembroke Pines has received $76,294 from citations, but the red-light camera program has cost $83,337. Legal fees encompassed $33,189 of that, with the rest going to American Traffic Solutions, which has contracts across Broward and Palm Beach counties to manage the cameras.
The cameras' supporters say the legal problems will be sorted out.
"We have cameras in our parks and other public facilities, and this is a natural progression of technology to enforce our laws. We have busy roadways and a lot of pedestrians, and I believe it will make the roads safer," Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper said.
Still, some communities that had signed contracts to install the cameras, such as Boca Raton and Delray Beach, now are delaying installing the cameras.
"There were some issues, a number of legal things, that were mulling around. We don't want to implement the program until those iron out," said Boca Raton's assistant city manager Mike Woika.
American Traffic Solutions has told the cities that Florida's court rulings have been out of step with how other states have enforced red-light camera violations.
"I don't think things are quite as dire as they seem, but they are a lot rockier than expected," said Michael McAllister, a lobbyist who represents American Traffic Solutions.
State Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and state Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-New Port Richey, have proposed a repeal and want the camera program ended by July.
--- Information from: South Florida Sun Sentinel, http://www.sunsentinel.com
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)