When Florida slapped Bob Sherin's software company with a monstrous $45,000 tax bill in 1976, the small-business owner went ballistic. Until then, his upstart industry had been exempt from state sales tax. But he couldn't find a lawyer to take his case. Instead, Sherin camped out in a law library for several months and then argued on his own behalf. The battle broke up his marriage, he says, but he prevailed.
Four decades later, Sherin is still using the same administrative court system, called the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH), to fight The Man. But this time The Man is a popular annoyance: the tyranny of red-light camera tickets.
Sherin is not a lawyer, but a "non lawyer" — a title he proudly tacks onto his emails. Either way, he has spent the past year exposing what he calls red-light "racketeering."
"There all sorts of exemptions [from tickets] that are being hidden from motorists," Sherin says. "These cities are demanding millions of dollars that they are not due. It's a crime."
Take the case of Lon Ohlfest. The therapist had been volunteering at a church in North Miami when he made a right-hand turn at a stoplight on the way home. "I slowed down, I stopped, then I proceeded through the intersection," he remembers. A couple of weeks later, however, he opened his mailbox to find the financial equivalent of a steaming bag of dog crap: a red-light camera ticket for $158.
When Ohlfest pointed out that the ticket was in his deceased mother's name, North Miami officials simply sent him another one with his name on it. But the second ticket arrived 71 days after the alleged infraction — 11 days after the statute of limitations allows.
Ohlfest filled out an affidavit online. With Sherin's help, he put together a seemingly air-tight argument. Florida law says a driver can't be ticketed "for failure to stop at a red light if the driver is making a right-hand turn in a careful and prudent manner at an intersection where right-hand turns are permissible."
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North Miami officials ignored his pleas. Finally, he went to traffic court. A judge took one look at the video and said, "Dismissed."
But Ohlfest's personal victory isn't much precedent. "This city is giving out who knows how many tickets every day to people who are struggling just to get by," he says. "It's extortion. They are making money outside the law. It's just a money-grabbing scheme."
So Sherin is now challenging the basic rules behind red-light camera tickets. "I'm not going to stop until they disclose [the law] on every notice," he says.