GULFPORT — Deborah Blake versus the city of Gulfport shaped up as a total mismatch.
The 61-year-old paralegal was so infuriated at receiving a $158 citation based on a red- light camera video she decided to take on the city and represent herself in court.
That pitted her against City Attorney Andrew Salzman, a lawyer for almost 30 years. The deep pockets of red-light camera firm American Traffic Solutions also paid for high-powered law firm Carlton Fields Jorden Burt to represent the city.
Nonetheless, Blake, whose area of expertise is bankruptcy, was able to teach her opponents a lesson or two about traffic law.
Three Pinellas circuit judges ruled in Blake’s favor last week, overturning a decision by the city’s hearing officer and quashing her citation. The ruling raises questions about the legality of Gulfport’s red-light camera program.
“I kicked their butt,” said Blake. “I think it’s pretty cool but none of this should have happened.”
Blake won her appeal making the same argument as Eric Arem, a South Florida motorist whose citation by the city of Hollywood also was overturned.
In that case, the 4th District Court of Appeals agreed with Arem’s attorneys that the city had illegally delegated the enforcement of red-light running and issuance of traffic tickets to the camera company.
The appellate ruling led cities in Palm Beach and Broward counties to suspend their camera programs. Arem’s attorneys, Hollander and Associates, have since filed lawsuits across Florida, including against the city of Tampa, seeking refunds for any ticketed motorist.
Another lawsuit, this one against the city of Oldsmar, is headed to the 2nd District Court of Appeals.
Salzman and Jim Thaler, Gulfport’s red-light camera hearing officer, are set to meet with ATS attorneys to decide whether to appeal the Pinellas ruling, according to an email sent Monday to Mayor Sam Henderson and Gulfport City Council.
The discussion may also include “changes or recommendations that City staff may need to make to City Council in regards to our program,” the email says.
The decision to appeal could also depend on the city’s appetite to continue its camera program.
The city’s contract with ATS is scheduled for renewal early next year, said Gulfport Police Chief Robert Vincent.
“The council will be discussing that at some point in January,” he said.
Salzman did not return calls seeking comment.
Gulfport is a small player among the Florida communities using red light cameras, with just three of the devices monitoring three intersections.
By contrast, Tampa pays ATS for 57 cameras to monitor 22 intersections.
Still, Gulfport’s cameras have proven prolific at capturing red light runners, recording roughly 15,800 violations resulting in fines totaling $1.7 million in the program’s first four years.
Of that, $794,000 has gone to the state and $708,000 to ATS, leaving $262,000 for the city.
Under the program, potential violations captured by cameras are first reviewed by ATS workers.
They then send video and stills to sworn law enforcement officers who then decide if a citation is warranted by clicking on “Accept.”
Blake was ticketed when a camera snapped her driving her 1999 Kia Sportage through the intersection at 49th Street South and 15th Avenue in October 2014. She said it was the first traffic ticket she’s received in about 30 years.
She initially argued her case at a city administrative hearing where Thaler, presiding as hearing officer, rejected her argument based on the 4th DCA ruling.
Undaunted, she appealed to the Pinellas County Appellate Division. Circuit Judges Jack Day, Pamela Campbell and Peter Ramsberger wrote in their ruling that they agreed with the 4th DCA analysis of camera programs.
“When ATS makes an initial determination of whether a violation occurred, that is an improper delegation of police powers,” the ruling states.
Blake estimates she spent more than 100 hours researching state law, reading about other cases and writing her own legal briefs for the case.
She said she will fight on if the city decides to appeal.
“When the appeals court renders a decision, all the courts are supposed to follow it,” Blake said. “The city of Gulfport, I guess they just feel the law doesn’t apply to them.”