Are South Florida cities using red-light cameras to simply rake in your green?

Data shows Sweetwater intersection had more than 29,000 citations

SWEETWATER, Fla. – Just driving into the Dolphin Mall could cost you $158 before you even start shopping.

According to numbers provided to Local 10 News by Sweetwater police, 29,672 red-light camera citations were issued by the camera on the south side of the mall at Northwest 14th Avenue and Northwest 12th Street. Most of the citations were issued to drivers making a right turn on red into the mall at slow speed.

Each citation generates a $158 fine.

The city could not tell Local 10 News how many citations are dismissed or paid.

"There is absolutely no reason for that camera to be at the main entrance of the Dolphin Mall," Sweetwater Commissioner Marcos Villanueva said. "This system is created to abuse the residents (and) to abuse motorists." 

According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Revenue, the city of Sweetwater's six red-light cameras generated $2.5 million from July 2018 to March 2019.

"It's a business," Villanueva said.

Villanueva is a former Sweetwater police lieutenant.

Red-light camera collection by jurisdiction 

  • $158 per citation
  • $83 to the state
  • $75 to the city issuing the citation

In January 2018, he made a motion to eliminate all red-light cameras in Sweetwater, but his resolution was voted down.

"If the red-light cameras were giving citations to people who were just taking the red light through the intersection, I'm all for that. But if you're making a right-hand turn going 3 mph? No," Villanueva said.

Villanueva said the intersection at Northwest 114th Avenue and Northwest 12th Street is not dangerous.

Florida's Integrated Report Exchange System, or FIRES, tracks crashes and crash data throughout the state.

According to the website, from 2011 to 2013, there were five crashes at the intersection.

There were no fatalities.

From 2014 to 2018, the website shows there were no crashes there.

"It's a gotcha moment," Ted Hollander, an attorney with the Ticket Clinic, said.

List of red-light camera citations by city

Hollander has been fighting the red-light camera system in court for 10 years.

"There's a high volume of people going in the mall," Hollander said. "They know most people that get these citations pay them before they go to court." 

Local 10 News wanted to ask Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez, who is running for re-election in May and who has favored the red-light cameras, why the Dolphin Mall camera was put there.

Local 10 News investigative reporter Jeff Weinsier sent the mayor several emails, but he never responded.

Two weeks later, Weinsier tracked him down.

"Why won't you talk to me about red-light cameras?" Weinsier asked.

"I'll talk to you. I've just been really busy this week," Lopez said.

Red-light cameras that generated the most tickets in 2018

  • 29,672 citations | Northwest 114th Avenue at 12th Street (south entrance to the Dolphin Mall) in Sweetwater
  • 13,346 citations | Right-hand turn onto Florida's Turnpike from Commerical Boulevard in Tamarac
  • 11,000 citations | West Palm Drive in the southbound direction on U.S. Route 1 in Florida City  
  • 8,442 citations | Westbound 192nd Street (State Road 856) at Country Club Drive in Aventura
  • 6,472 citations | Northwest 57th Avenue (North Red Road) at Northwest 167th Street in Miami Gardens

Lopez said the city does get a lot of complaints about the Dolphin Mall red-light camera.

"It's probably revenue-generating, but it was not placed there for a revenue source," Lopez said.

As a comparision, the camera that generates the most red-light citations in Miami Gardens is at Northwest 167th Street and Northwest 57th Avenue.

That camera generated 16,000 citations in 2018.

In Aventura, the camera generating the largest number of citations is at the north end of the William Lehman Causeway at Country Club Drive.

That camera generated 14,000 citations for the same period.

Lopez said American Traffic Solutions, the private company contracted to run the cameras, did an analysis and made recommendations as to where camera should be placed.

The recommendations were approved by the City Commission years ago. Lopez served on the commission at the time.

"Now, in hindsight, the camera probably shouldn't have been placed there," Lopez said. "I'd prefer to have the camera back on 107th (Street) and Flagler (Avenue), which is a really dangerous intersection."

But Lopez has never made a recommendation to have the camera moved.

Sweetwater Police Chief Placido Diaz said crimes have been solved using the data from video generated by the red-light cameras.

"Do I like the fact that we have 'Big Brother' out there and the cameras out there? I do," Diaz said. 

On May 14, the voters of Sweetwater will decide whether or not they want their city to continue to use the red-light camera system.

The issue is on the ballot.

"The worst thing that you can do is ignore it," Hollander said of the citation.

Hollander is currently challenging the "right turn on red" issue in court.

He said if drivers make the right-hand turn in a safe and prudent manor, they shouldn't get a citation.

About the Author:

Jeff Weinsier joined Local 10 News in September 1994. He is currently an investigative reporter for Local 10. He is also responsible for the very popular Dirty Dining segments.