By Mark Schlueb

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Orlando and other cities did not have the authority to set up an automated camera system to catch red-light runners and ticket them.

The ruling effects only the city's ticket camera program between Sept. 1, 2008 and July 1, 2010, when Orlando operated ticket cameras without specific authorization from the state.

That means Orlando may refund the $125 fines paid by ticketed people -- but only to a small number of them. Most of the nearly 50,000 people cited by the city before July 2010 may never get their money back, even though the court decided the program was illegal.

Once the ruling is final, the city will contact those who "properly objected" and likely will return their money, City Attorney Mayanne Downs said.

That applies only to those who objected by appealing their tickets -- a small fraction of the 48,579 citations issued during that two-year period. Most lost their shot at a refund under a legal doctrine that says if you voluntarily pay, you give up your right to recover money later, Downs said.

Orlando collected $4.3 million during that time, but refunds would total less than $100,000, she said.

Attorney David Kerner said all of those ticketed should get refunds -- not just those who appealed.

"The Supreme Court has said the money they collected was collected unlawfully," said Kerner, of the West Palm Beach firm that sued Orlando and others. "I don't think you're going to see elected leaders say they're not going to return the money at this point."

While Orlando continued to litigate the case, other jurisdictions, including Apopka, Casselberry and Ocoee, settled lawsuits by issuing partial refunds.

In 2010, the Legislature changed state law to specifically allow red-light tickets. In its ruling issued Thursday, the court said Orlando and other cities, including Aventura, were preempted by state law from setting up their red-light ticket programs before the law changed.

"The Orlando and Aventura ordinances are invalid because they are expressly preempted by state law," Justice Charles Canady wrote.

Red-light cameras have been controversial since cities began installing them in Florida in 2007. Critics say their only purpose is to generate revenue. Supporters argue they're meant to prevent crashes.

"We implemented this because the state was unwilling to step up," said Heather Fagan, deputy chief of staff to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. "We knew there was a slight risk, but to us that was outweighed by the need to prevent red-light crashes."

Michael Udowychenko of Kissimmee was the one who sued Orlando after receiving a ticket. He won his case but was unsuccessful in his attempt to gain class-action status.

Kerner said his firm will try again to obtain class-action status. If successful, it could mean refunds for everyone who was ticketed prior to the new state law's adoption, except for those cited by cities that have settled, he said.

(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)