Safety Measure or Just Another Tax? Debate Over Red Light Cameras Intensifies

You let a friend borrow your car. A few weeks later you get a ticket in the mail with a picture of the car running a red light. You know you were not driving the car, but now you're stuck with a ticket and have to prove your innocence.

Lawyers say such a hypothetical situation is not only unfair, but illegal.

Red light cameras have become popular because they supposedly reduce accidents at intersections while generating revenue for cash-strapped municipalities.


But now ticket recipients and their lawyers are pushing back.

Dennis Salvagio, a criminal defense attorney from Orlando, Fla., said the traffic cameras and the way cities use them to issue tickets are illegal because they force citizens to prove their innocence, rather than forcing cities to prove drivers' guilt.

"It was unconstitutional from the get-go," Salvagio told "I think everybody should fight it."

The West Palm Beach, Fla. law firm of Schuler, Halvorson & Weisser has filed 27 class action lawsuits against Florida municipalities, charging that they have operated the cameras without legal authority. The first ruling came in Orlando, where the city may be forced to refund over $4 million collected from over 50,000 tickets issued since the city started the program in September 2008.

In Houston, another attorney, Paul Kubosh, organized a group called Citizens Against Red Light Cameras, which has gathered over 30,000 signatures on a petition that would put the cameras up for a vote before the community.

"All I want is a vote. Just a vote!" Kubosh told

Against Red Light Cameras? 'I Scratch My Head'

Though citizens are upset about the cameras and the fines that come with them, Vicki King, assistant chief of information systems command for the Houston Police Department, cannot understand why people don't want cameras that may reduce the "horrific" car crashes that result from drivers running red lights.

"I scratch my head when I hear opponents of red light cameras," King told "I've had more nightmares from motor vehicle crashes than I ever did from homicide.

"I don't know why people aren't screaming at us to do more," she said.

Lawyers like Salvagio and David Kramer, one of the lawyers working on behalf of plaintiffs in the Florida class action suits, say they only want to make sure the government is following the law. Although Kramer and his firm are fighting the cameras in court, he said they are neither for nor against the cameras on safety grounds.

"Our goal is to make sure that the government operates within their authority," Kramer told

Orange County Circuit Court Judge Frederick Lauten ruled against the city of Orlando before the case went to trial, instead issuing a summary judgment. In his decision, Lauten wrote that the city did not have the right to operate the cameras because by law, only the state has the power to allow the cameras. Prior to July 1, state law did not allow the cameras.

He added that the city did not establish who had the burden of proof when it came to the red light violations, which is the problem that leads Salvagio to call the cameras unconstitutional.

"You should never have to come forward and say, 'I didn't do it,'" Salvagio said. "Under the rules, you have to come forward and say what defense you have."

That amounts to shifting the burden of proof, which is illegal, Salvagio said. He described the legal problems inherent with the camera laws as something one learns in "law school 101." The only reason more people don't fight these fines, he said, is that it is easier to pay the fine rather than to hire a lawyer and go to court.

Lawyers for the city of Orlando could not be reached for comment.

Tickets From Red Light Cameras Make Millions for Cities

Citizens also complain that cameras are used only as a way to make money and do not accomplish their intended purpose of making intersections safer.

"Especially in the last two years, governments just looking for any ways to generate revenue," said Jeff Cohn, founder of, a site that tracks the location of red light cameras.

"They're writing tickets like no tomorrow," Kubosh said, and pointed to a Rice University study that found that accidents did not decline at Houston intersections with the cameras. A Federal Highway Administration study showed that while right angle or "T-bone" crashes declined, rear-end, or "fender-bender" crashes actually increased in intersections with the cameras.

Either way, Assistant Chief King said the cameras are worth it.

"If I had to choose between someone being involved in a T-bone crash, which has a very high injury rate and a very high mortality rate, and someone getting bumped from the rear ... I'll take that every day of the week and twice on Sunday," King said.

Houston has collected more than $45 million in fines since it first installed the red light cameras in 2006. King said the money from the tickets pays for the cameras, and the remaining funds are split between trauma centers and traffic programs.

King said the only goal is safety and wishes they could install more cameras in Houston. While growth of the cameras continued for many years, that growth may have ceased.

Cohn, of, which maps the locations of red light cameras, estimated that there were more than 5,000 red-light cameras in 1,300 cities across the United States and Canada. Cohn thought that number may go down.

"I'm starting to see a trend now where cities are removing cameras," said Cohn, adding he is neither for nor against the cameras.

Cohn said the reason for the decline is that municipalities often find the cameras are ineffective from a cost standpoint, but questions of legality may be an increasing factor.

According to, an online journal on the politics of driving, 15 states have banned the use of red light cameras. They also wrote that red light cameras have never passed a vote before the general public.