Court drops red-light charges

Hernando County Fifth Circuit Judge Donald Scaglione found 15 residents “not guilty” of red-light camera-issued citations Dec. 3 involving right turns on red after reviewing photo and video evidence presented in court.

“In his order, (Scaglione) allowed the photo evidence in, but found that everybody I represented that day, he found not guilty,” Brooksville attorney and former county judge Peyton Hyslop said.

“They were all right turns, and he determined they were made in a careful and prudent manner.”

In Brooksville, tickets are given to those who make right turns on red when they exceed 5 mph during the turn. Officers use radar installed on the camera to determine speed.

In his Dec. 17 order concerning violations of the Mark Wendall Traffic Safety Act — the state bill allowing counties and cities to use cameras to detect red-light traffic violations — Scaglione wrote this was the fourth set of red-light camera cases to come to Hernando County Court, and called the hearings “unusual.”

“The Court notes red-light camera cases have become fodder of blogs, media and the public,” Scaglione wrote. “Let us all remember this is a state law, drafted, designed, voted upon by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by the Governor representing the Executive Branch. … The Court wishes to advise and acknowledge that Florida Law requires a driver to stop on a red light before turning right. Florida Law requires a complete and full settled stop before proceeding.”

Scaglione wrote the argument of safety vs. financial benefit is irrelevant to the court, and that this issue is not one that the court can remedy.

“That issue is strictly a legislative matter controlled by the City/County and Florida Legislature bodies,” Scaglione wrote. “The Court notes that the media has reported that the State of Florida is in the process of changing its State license tags for the purpose of making the tags ‘camera friendly.’ The Court can assume that action is a precursor to enhance camera enforcement around the State.”

Three defendants who pleaded not guilty but failed to appear in court were found guilty by Scaglione, Hyslop said, and some defendants had more than one case.

“I’m still representing people,” Hyslop said. “In fact, I had court again on Monday with Judge Scaglione, and I raised several different objections as to Florida cases allowing photographic evidence.”

Hyslop said he most recently argued the “Silent Witness Rule.”

“Let’s say you walk into a bank or go to an ATM: they got the camera running all the time there,” Hyslop said. “And if the photo is going to go into evidence there has to be a witness there, or someone who can say, ‘That looks like what I saw’ because with Photoshop we can do anything these days. We can make you look like you’re on the moon.”

“The Silent Witness Rule says that if you can show how cameras are installed, and how they can’t be messed with then we’re going to rely on cameras because there’s someone there that can be relied upon that says it can’t be messed with,” Hyslop added. “Well, my objection to that is (the officer to testify) is not the person that installs the red-light cameras, so there’s no one there to say the camera was correctly installed or correctly maintained.”

Hyslop said he has not heard any rulings regarding that legal argument.

According to City Attorney George Angeliadis, who represented the City of Brooksville in the red-light camera citation hearings, Judge Scaglione dismissed legal arguments presented by defendants against the use of red-light cameras, even though Scaglione found most to be “not guilty” of turning right on red in an unsafe and imprudent manner.

“Judge Scaglione denied each and every one of those arguments,” Angeliadis said. “These were all right on red portions in the statute, and in the statute it allows the judge to dismiss cases if the judge’s discretion is that the turn was made in a careful and prudent manner. None of these cases involved going straight through the red light; it all involved right on reds.”

“It’s one of those decisions that cuts both ways,” Angeliadis added. “We’re glad he found the ruling he did based on the legal arguments, but then again he made the decision that everyone was found not guilty.”

Angeliadis said generally speaking, tapes and cameras are considered hearsay by the court. However, there are exceptions to hearsay, and particular rules concerning photographs and videotapes.

“Especially in today’s world,” Angeliadis said, “where you can pull out your phone and tape something and post it online, and the rules are constantly changing, and the courts are having to take into consideration these days the reliability of technology.”

Scaglione is critical of media reports in his Dec. 3 order.

“The media in general in mischaracterizing some of the previous cases that have been heard, and I think there’s a feeling that these cameras or the statute allowing them have been declared unconstitutional, but that’s just not the case,” Angeliadis said. “There were some cases here the court rejected.”

Angeliadis said that, because the Mark Wendall Traffic Safety Act allows judges to rule on red-light citations on a case-by-case basis, Judge Scaglione’s Dec. 3 decision could look different next time.

“I can’t stress enough he may have another feeling on another case, or that another argument will be presented to cause the judge to interpret it differently,” Angeliadis said. “The law isn’t always changing, but it is always being reinterpreted.”

All in all, Angeliadis said, the ruling appears to be a victory for both parties in the case.

“I think that the courts are going to look at these on a case-by-case basis, and there’s not a silver bullet that’s going to make these go away,” Angeliadis said. “Not yet, anyway.”

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