TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Cities that installed red-light cameras before a state law authorized them might have to pay back millions of dollars in fines if Florida's Supreme Court accepts the argument that they were collected illegally.
A Florida law requiring uniform traffic law enforcement wouldn't have allowed a separate fine system set up by cities that were using red-light cameras before the Legislature passed a law allowing the devices in 2010, attorneys for drivers who are challenging the law argued before the court Thursday.
Cities can't implement their own set of fines outside of state law, said one of the attorneys, Jason Weisser. In the case of an Orlando ordinance, he added, the penalties — such as the revocation of locally issued business permits and licenses if fines aren't paid — exceed what the state allows for running red lights, Weisser said.
He also noted that the Orlando ordinance called for a $250 fine for a third offense when the state fine would be $125. The ordinances also deviated from state law because they applied to the vehicle owner and not the driver, he said.
Two cases that had gone before separate appeals courts were merged into one for the purposes of Thursday's hearing. The 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach said Orlando's red-light camera ordinance conflicted with state traffic laws. The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami, however, upheld red-light camera fines collected in Aventura before the new law was passed.
Lawyers for the cities defended the use of the cameras, saying that the fines were not being issued based on the state traffic laws. They described the use of the cameras as a separate parallel system.
"It is different. It is a parallel system and if you don't buy our parallel system, then you don't buy our case," said David King, the lawyer representing Orlando.
It didn't appear that Justice Charles Canady was buying the case. He said state law clearly spells out that cities can't institute their own traffic rules.
"This is about as clear as it can be ... that the state is not allowing the imposition of additional fees, fines, surcharges or costs," Canady said.
Justice Barbara Pariente indicated her concern was not so much whether the cities used the cameras to fine people running red lights, but rather whether municipal fines exceed fines allowed under state law.