Red-Light Cameras Come to a South Florida Intersection Near You

Richard Masone doesn't look like a freedom fighter. He's a mellow bodybuilder in a Yankees cap and tank top who spends his days selling Muscle Milk, Snapple, and energy bars at the snack bar of Aventura's Olympia Gym. But he has received dozens of letters from supporters urging him to stay strong. And every day or so, a sweaty patron comes to him for advice on how to stick it to "The Man."

Masone, you see, is a modern-day freedom fighter when it comes to red-light cameras, the computerized menaces that cramp our collective driving style and leech our wallets. The cameras are, he says, devices of "entrapment" designed to raid taxpayers' pockets: "Cities are losing money because of all the foreclosures. This is their way out. It doesn't take a scientist to figure that out."

Last year, Masone took the system to court and won a major decision. But his victory was fleeting. Beginning next month, the state's eyes in the sky will be on stronger legal ground than ever.

Back in 1987, the dusty burg of Paradise Valley, Arizona, was the first place in the nation to install red-light cameras. Courts forced it to refund ticketed drivers after the town was busted for illegally shortening yellow lights.

Yet local politicians of all stripes glommed onto the idea as a way to keep drivers in line and raise tax revenue. These days, the cameras have spread to 26 states and the District of Columbia.

But they've also been beset by legal challenges. Countless class-action suits have claimed that the cameras skirt due process rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed "concern" over potential "privacy abuses." Fifteen states have banned them. A cottage industry has sprouted of companies offering license-plate-obscuring sprays designed to thwart the cameras.

Red-light cameras came to South Florida in October 2008 in Aventura. The city, which charges up to $500 per ticket, now has seven cameras and has collected $2.1 million. The cameras quickly became famous for their hair-trigger reactions: They'll nab you for something as small as not fully stopping before making a right turn on red.

Officials from West Palm Beach to Miami then lined up for their taste of the cash bonanza. Pembroke Pines, with one of the most aggressive red-light camera programs, has received more than $355,000 in fines from more than 4,000 violations in a year's time. North Miami has received $370,000 in five months of red-light camera operation. West Miami has made $181,000 in a couple of months, a big bump for a town too broke to afford a website. Among the other cities that have adopted the cameras: Hallandale Beach, Homestead, Miami Gardens, Bal Harbour, Opa-locka, Miami Shores, and North Bay Village. Miami is in the process of installing 20 cameras at downtown intersections. Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach are considering adding red-light cameras.

West Palm added its first cameras in February but downgraded the program not long after, with city commissioners deciding that they would no longer issue fines to people who made illegal right turns on red. That change didn't come quickly enough for Mayor Lois Frankel, who got a $150 fine for an illegal right turn on red.

The cities don't have to pay up-front for the cameras. They are provided by Arizona-based manufacturer American Traffic Solutions. The company runs like Avon, loaning its product for free and then taking a cut when the revenues roll in. "The profit margins are enormous," says Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert M. Jarvis. "Governments are so strapped, they're going to do anything they can to raise money."

Of course, most officials won't admit that red-light cameras are nothing more than a municipal Band-Aid. "This is about saving lives," says Angelo Castillo, a commissioner for Pembroke Pines. "We had a lot of senior citizens who were afraid to cross the street. We were tired of seeing mangled bicycles."

But, in fact, red-light cameras might cause more accidents than they prevent. Studies by the Washington Post, the Palm Beach Post, and the University of South Florida, among others, have shown that the number of rear-end collisions jump at camera-monitored intersections because drivers pull up short to avoid getting their pictures snapped.

Then there's the creepiness factor that always accompanies Big Brother taking your photo. That's what spurred Homestead resident Rafael Madera — who last year appealed a ticket and lost after his 17-year-old son, Dominic, allegedly ran a red in Dad's car — to join the 83-member Facebook group Citizens of Florida Against Red Light Cameras. "It's a slippery slope until the government is taking pictures of everything you do," he says. "It's like how they say the streets are safe in Singapore. Yeah, but what rights are you giving up?"

Because red-light cameras weren't permitted in Florida law, cities have classified the tickets as "code infractions" — a creative use of jargon that the citizenry hasn't taken lying down. Upward of a thousand drivers have joined more than a dozen class-action lawsuits from Homestead to North Miami to Orlando, claiming the fines were illegal, and lawyers advised clients not to pay. Those lawsuits are all still awaiting trial.

Then bodybuilder Masone finally forced a judge to do something. The Montreal native's tangle with justice began when he drove his white Dodge Durango through the intersection of the William Lehman Causeway and East Country Club Drive in Aventura on January 1 and 2, 2009. A week later, he received invoices from the city's Intersection Safety Camera Program, informing him that he owed $125 and $250, respectively, for running red lights each time. According to Masone, the light was yellow when he was in the intersection.

Determined to fight, Masone enticed the pro bono efforts of fellow gym rat Bret Lusskin, a flamboyant attorney better-known in the traffic litigation circuit and on low-budget TV commercials as "The Ticket Cricket." Labeling the tickets as code infractions "was completely illegal, and the cities knew it," Lusskin says. "They were simply extorting millions of dollars from drivers."

In February 2010, Lusskin took Masone's tickets to Miami-Dade Circuit Court, where Judge Jerald Bagley stunningly declared the camera tickets were invalid. He reasoned that Florida law stipulated that "tickets should be issued by a law enforcement officer who has observed" the infraction in person.

Aventura appealed the decision, which will be revisited in late summer, and has continued to use cameras to catch drivers. Though Masone and anybody else who's already been slapped with a camera ticket might hang on that appeal, a flick of the governor's pen has made it a moot point for the rest of us.

Gov. Charlie Crist recently signed red-light cameras into state law. Beginning July 10, drivers will be fined $158 each ticket. The money will be split by city and state. Penalty points won't be assessed, but your license will be suspended if you don't pay.

The new law provides little room for argument, says law professor Jarvis. Drivers should expect speed-monitoring cameras to come next: "It's very hard to put the genie back in the bottle."

If you're wondering, Richard Masone hasn't gotten another red-light ticket since those two infractions in January 2009. That's not necessarily a good thing. "If I see the light turn yellow, I'm slamming on my brakes," he declares matter of factly. "If somebody behind me smashes into me, so be it. I'm not getting a ticket."

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Gus Garcia-Roberts