When Florida slapped Bob Sherin's software company with a monstrous $45,000 tax bill back in 1976, the small business owner went ballistic. Up to that point, 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 argued his own case. The battle broke-up his marriage, 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's spent the past year and considerable personal expense to expose what he calls red light "racketeering". South Florida cities are sending citizens tickets for right-hand-turns and other acts that simply aren't illegal, he says.
"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, a friend of Sherin's. 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.
The citation was shoddy from the start. When Ohlfest pointed out that the ticket was in his deceased mother's name, North Miami officials just 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. Section 316.0083 of Florida's municipal code 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."
Yet, North Miami officials ignored his pleas. (They did not return requests for comment.)
As Ohlfest waited for a response, his license was suspended. Finally, he forked over $61 to lift the ban and have his case heard in 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 taking the case to DOAH to challenge the basic rules behind red light camera tickets. The outcome might take a while, but it will affect dozens of cities and thousands of people in the Miami area. "I'm not going to stop until they disclose all these exemption to motorists in court and on every notice," he says.
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