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Bradenton facing red-light camera lawsuit

BRADENTON — City officials might soon be in court defending the use of cameras to combat motorists running red lights at one of Bradenton’s busiest intersections.

A West Palm Beach attorney plans to add Bradenton to the list of cities throughout Florida his firm will sue, he said Monday, claiming the use of cameras to fine drivers is a violation of motorists’ constitutional rights.

In just two weeks, about 30 drivers have been issued $125 citations for running red lights at First Street and Manatee Avenue West, according to Bradenton Police Department Sgt. Brian Thiers.

The cameras take two pictures of a vehicle and its license plate if it enters the intersection after the light turns red. A video of the infraction is taken, as well.

Thiers reviews the footage to confirm a violation has occurred and, if so, approves a citation. Using the image of the license plate to search a state driver’s license database, a citation is then sent to the owner of the vehicle.

Thiers said he has been reviewing eight or nine possible infractions each work day.

Motorists can appeal a citation within 21 days to the city’s code enforcement board, which will consider defense arguments from vehicle owners. One example: someone else was driving at the time of the violation.

Critics of the cameras say numerous cities in Florida, including Bradenton, are circumventing state law by putting up the cameras to make money under the guise of public safety.

The Florida Legislature and attorney general’s office have both ruled that cities cannot cite people using current Florida statutes. So cities began crafting local ordinances to collect civil fines that are not governed by the state. Bradenton motorists have been receiving traffic citations with no threat of state fines or driver’s license points. Instead, if citizens don’t pay, their citation will be turned over to a collection agency, and could affect a motorist’s credit.

Cities are also not permitted to place cameras on any state right-of-way.

One motorist already cited for violating Bradenton’s red-light camera ordinance has hired West Palm Beach attorney Jason Weisser to sue the city. It would be the lawyer’s ninth such suit against cities throughout Florida using red-light cameras, including Orlando, Miami Gardens and Aventura.

The cameras have been pulling in millions of dollars across the state. In Aventura, for example, five cameras have generated an estimated $1 million since October, according to the Miami Herald. Bradenton officials say the program is so new here that no money has come in from the dozens of citations issued thus far.

Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski agrees making money is a factor, as well as an effort to curtail red-light running.

“It is going to make a lot of money because red-light running is an epidemic here,” Radzilowski said. “The bottom line is, don’t run a red light if you don’t want to pay a fine.”

Weisser plans to argue that the citations are unconstitutional because the burden of proof has been placed on the driver, not the city to prove guilt. He also said he is outraged that the owner of a vehicle is cited without any way to prove who was actually driving at the time of the infraction.

“These cameras are the judge, jury and executioner, and that is a violation of constitutional rights,” Weisser said.

Local attorney David Haenel, who handles traffic cases in Manatee and Sarasota counties, said he particularly questions that city police will determine violations, while the city’s code enforcement board will handle appeals.

“The city will be policing itself, and that is crazy,” Haenel said. “This is about money and nothing else.”

Bradenton Council member Marianne Barnebey called the cameras an “extreme measure,” but defended them, saying motorists’ disregard for the law forced the council’s hand.

“We wouldn’t have to do this if people were obeying the laws here,” she said. “But innocent people are losing their lives.”

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