St. Pete’s first hearing on red light cameras a sad event

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Editor’s note: The following is a guest post from Matt Florell of St. Pete Polls.

I went to the first City of St. Petersburg red light camera municipal hearings Friday afternoon, and after leaving all I am left feeling is, sad. There were four cases today, and each of them proceeded in the same manner. First, the person cited was called to the podium, the clerk showed the before and after red light pictures, then the video of the alleged offense. Next, the cited person was asked if they had anything to present, and none of them presented much at all. Lastly, the appeal was denied in all four cases and they were all fined an additional $100 for losing their appeals.

These local hearings were a new requirement for municipalities that wanted to keep their red light camera systems after July 1st of this year, when HB-7125 went into effect. Among other requirements, it requires that municipal hearings be an option for people that want to appeal their notice of violation, and that these hearings cannot use strict rules of evidence, and that the municipalities can issue up to $250 in added fees for people that lose their appeals. For more about this, take a look at my analysis of HB-7125 here.

The first case was a man who came to the stand with several pieces of paper in his hand. The city’s evidence showed that he made a right turn on red 43 seconds after the light turned red, and as he approached the stop line he was going 25 mph. When asked if he had any evidence to present, he showed the papers he had brought, which were his wife’s cremation papers. He told the magistrate that right before the alleged offense, he had been called by the hospital and was told that his wife had only one hour to live. The magistrate said she was sorry for his loss, then said his appeal was denied and he now owed the city $258 in total($158 for the citation, and a $100 hearing fee). He asked for more time to pay and was given 90 days(after which his vehicle registration would be revoked if he did not pay). As for the evidence itself, there was no danger of a crash, I would estimate based on the distance traveled in the photos that he was going about 10mph as he actually crossed the stop line, and since no pedestrians, bicyclists or other vehicles were anywhere near his path, it would be a very easy argument to make that he made a legal “careful and prudent” right turn on red.

The second case was a man who brought his pregnant wife and a little girl with him to the hearing. The evidence showed that it was raining, and the vehicle crossed the stop line 0.3 seconds after the 4.0 second yellow left turn light turned to red. The wife said she was driving and that she didn’t think she could safely stop with how wet the road was. The magistrate asked the man why he didn’t fill out the affidavit to implicate his wife in the offense, and he said he didn’t know he could do that. They then said that when they called they were told that the appeals process was their only option. Without anything else to present, the magistrate denied their appeal and asked if they needed more time to pay. The wife said they were trying to pay for their new baby’s delivery and had no extra money, and the magistrate said 90 days is all she could do. As for the offense, this is one of the short yellow signals that will be 0.7 seconds longer by the end of the year to comply with the changes in minimum yellow signal time ordered by the state. If this left turn light had been set to this standard, or even had been set to the current length of the straight through yellow light at the same approach, she would not have run a red light. Also, in traffic court, a 0.3 second red light running citation in the rain would have stood a very good chance of being thrown out by a traffic court judge.

The third case was a man who was cited for running the red light 0.1 seconds after it turned red, making a left turn onto 4th St. N. from 22nd Ave. N. The first picture showed the traffic signal dark, with no lights at all, and the second picture showed him going through the intersection. The clerk then proceeded to run through the video several times to try to show that the man ran the red light. The video was small and blurry, and there is no way you could clearly tell that the vehicle was fully behind the stop line when the red light turned on. The man said the light was clearly yellow when he crossed the stop line. He had no further evidence so the magistrate denied his appeal and the man asked for more time to pay. As for the evidence, with the first photo on the official citation showing no red light illuminated at all, and the blurry video being the only evidence of an offense, I would find it hard to believe that this would not have been thrown out in a county traffic court for lack of clear evidence.

The fourth case was a disabled woman who limped up to the podium with a cane. She made a left turn 0.6 seconds into the red light, and she said she did it and just wanted to see the video before she paid. When she found out she had to pay $100 extra for losing the appeal she said she didn’t want to appeal, only see the video evidence against her. She said she was living on disability at $600 a month and couldn’t afford to pay $258. The magistrate gave her 90 days to pay. Then the woman limped out of city council chambers. This is another short yellow signal intersection with an extra short left turn yellow signal. If the state’s new standards were in effect, the light would have remained yellow beyond the time when the woman passed the stop line and she would not have received the citation at all.

The whole session was over in about a half hour. None of the people cited put up any kind of significant defense. All of the people cited said they needed as much time as possible to pay due to financial hardship. None of these offenses were anywhere close to being a real safety threat. Most likely, none of these people would have been cited by a real police officer on the scene for their technical violations of the red light camera law. Half of the cases wouldn’t have even received a citation if the city had raised the yellow signals as the state is requiring as soon as they were notified of the change several months ago.

I feel sad for the people that I saw today. None of them knew what they had gotten themselves into with these hearings. None of them knew that there were real arguments that they could have made to get their tickets thrown out in a county traffic court if they had chosen that option instead. They didn’t know that five senior members of the St. Petersburg city staff have publicly called into question the accuracy of the red light camera equipment that the city used to ticket them. Or that one of those staff members used that very argument to get out of two red light camera tickets in traffic court himself.

The hearing I attended today reinforced the idea that red light cameras have nothing to do with safety, and that they are all about money. None of these people were dangerous scofflaws. None of them were aggressively driving or trying to beat the light. They were just struggling residents that didn’t know they were up against a city trying to protect a lucrative revenue stream based mostly on minor technical offenses, like theirs.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.