A Policing-for-Profit Cautionary Tale–New Miami, Ohio: NMA E-Newsletter #561

An hour away from Cincinnati, the known speed trap village of New Miami sits just north of Hamilton, the Butler County seat. Over six years ago, drivers in a class action sued this sleepy village of nearly 2,400 residents over its questionable speed camera practices.

Even though the village’s program was found unconstitutional in 2014, the court case continues. Last October, a Butler County judge ruled that New Miami would be allowed to take up to 10 years to refund the estimated $3.2 million (with interest) back to the drivers. Paying back all of the money at once might have bankrupted this village. Drivers, of course, still have not seen a dime.

But this is just one part of the story.

Due to the class action, New Miami stopped that speed camera program and started another. This time, officers used handheld speed cameras and issued automated tickets themselves. Since 2016, the village collected $1.76 million with its newest speed trap scheme.

This program, however, stopped on June 30th due to a new state requirement that took effect the following day. State legislators passed a law that limits the use of automated traffic enforcement cameras by stripping state funding to localities that use them. It also mandates that courts handle speed camera citations as civil proceedings that include both court fees and costs.

Five much larger Ohio municipalities have filed lawsuits challenging this new law. In August, New Miami also filed suit. Village Solicitor Dennis Adams asked a Butler County Judge for a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctions against the state. He wrote, “Injunctive relief will allow New Miami to serve the public interest by continuing its Photo Enforcement Program that reduces costs, potential physical injury and disruption to the residents caused by motor vehicle accidents and promotes compliance with traffic laws.”

Adam’s primary argument was the state cannot violate home rule—this is the reason there is a years-long struggle between state lawmakers and cities over automated enforcement in the first place. Toledo already won a preliminary injunction on that basis, and New Miami would need one to resume operating its handheld speed camera program.

In early September, the Ohio Attorney General’s office responded by writing that the state controls its own spending and has jurisdiction over the lower courts. Senior Assistant Attorney General Halli Brownfield Watson illustrated this point in the state’s brief,

“The general assembly properly exercised its constitutional authority to regulate the jurisdictions of lower courts and provide for their financial maintenance when it enacted these provisions. The village has no home-rule right to continue ‘administrative’ processes the general assembly has determined belong in state courts.”

In a county court proceeding in late September, Adams told Judge Greg Howard if the law remains in place, the village will have to lay off its entire police department and cut the Chief of Police back to part-time.

Fiscal Officer Belinda Rickets testified that this new law would also cost the village an estimated $612,000 in court costs per year, while tickets only generate about $222,000. If paid, each ticket generates $95, with 64 percent going to the city and the rest to the camera company. Due to the new law, the cost of the civil court filing for each ticket is $85 plus any additional fees the village must pay to the court.

Another issue for the village: The county seat of Hamilton actually handles the tickets. Court Clerk Michelle Deaton testified that her office could not handle the influx of 600 cases per month. Her office already handles 22,000 cases per year, and an additional 7,200 cases would be a considerable burden.

County Court Judge Howard will give his ruling on a temporary restraining order against the state soon. Undoubtedly, this will not be the last related court case for New Miami. The village has already spent over $350,000 in legal costs to fight for the power to profit off the backs of motorists.

New Miami should serve as a cautionary tale for other Ohio municipalities because policing for profit rarely pays off in the end. When predatory enforcement is allowed to continue, the loss of public trust comes at a high price for the community.

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