By Shelia Dunn, NMA Communications Director
When will Ohio municipalities ever learn? The Ohio Supreme Court has been working overtime on automated enforcement cases brought by motorists against cities and townships across the state. Justice would be better served if the state prohibited ticket cameras altogether. The difficulty is that the larger cities in Ohio have home-rule authority, i.e., they set their own regulations within the parameters of state and federal laws. Also, smaller towns seem emboldened to defy state law and previous court rulings.
The Village of Brice (population 80 in 2019) lies in Franklin County on the southwest side of the Columbus Metropolitan area. The Ohio Supreme Court recently ruled that the village operated a speed camera program citing drivers for nearly two years without sending the violations through the county municipal court. Brice ignored a previous state court ruling and subsequent amendment to the state’s revised code, effective 2019, that gave city courts “exclusive jurisdiction” over all civil traffic fines. This Ohio doctrine is called the “Toledo Regulations” because Toledo allowed a third-party vendor to mail tickets and collect the fines—the same as Brice.
Motorist and newly minted lawyer Alexander Maxwell received a speed camera ticket in Brice. He was instructed to mail his check for the fine to an address in Hamilton, OH, where it would be processed by BlueLine Solutions, Brice’s ticket camera vendor. The city receives 60 percent of all ticket fines collected (BlueLine Solutions receives the rest), which in 2018 constituted nearly three-quarters of the village’s $171,611 total income. Maxwell filed his lawsuit in January 2021 with the Ohio Supreme Court requesting a writ of prohibition to stop Brice from continuing to issue photo tickets in violation of the “Toledo Regulations.”
Brice has been in hot water with motorists since 2015, when a class action was filed against the village for similar reasons. That case remains active.
The lawyer who won the earlier Toledo case, Andrew Mayle, said he was amazed that Brice keeps issuing tickets and fining motorists in a blatant violation of state law and the state Supreme Court ruling. He added, “The fact that they continue to do so is a scam.”
Speaking of Toledo: Officials had planned to resume using both speed and red-light cameras this spring but are still waiting for an all-clear ruling from the state Supreme Court. Last June, the judges ruled unanimously that Toledo’s appeals process violated state law by circumventing the municipal court’s exclusive jurisdiction over such appeals.
Toledo immediately shut down its program after the 2020 ruling, determined to fix the issue. Under a revised ordinance passed by the city council in December 2020, vehicle owners who are mailed tickets can now only appeal through the Toledo Municipal Court rather than a hearing officer. The stakes are high. In 2019, the city snagged $6.7 million in camera revenue.
In April, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on an appeal filed by the cities of Dayton and East Cleveland plus Newburgh Heights, a Cleveland suburb in Cuyahoga County. House Bill 62 took effect in July 2019 and was the state lawmakers’ latest attempt to clamp down on the use of cameras. It reduced municipalities’ Local Government Fund allocations by the amount of money cities raised from automated cameras. It also prohibited the use of administrative hearing officers instead of municipal courts to hear appeals for fines.
Due to the passage of HB62, Dayton stopped using their fixed-site cameras in mid-2019 and quickly filed the suit. Toledo, however, continued to operate its cameras and could be in danger of having to refund any fines collected from July 2019 and forward. Ohio Supreme Court judges are expected to decide in the case whether the General Assembly can withhold Local Government Funds from cities equal to the amount cities rake in from cameras.
One of the dumbest and greediest money grabs involved a work zone camera that was left on a month after construction was completed on a highway near the city of Girard in Trumbull County. Approximately 7,700 motorists received speed camera tickets after a faster speed limit was restored between December 7, 2017, and January 7, 2018. The camera company has agreed to pay out $175,000 (roughly $120,000 after court fees). Each person who received the $100 fine will likely see a $20 refund from the camera company. The city of Girard, however, has not relented.
Former Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann said recently, “Girard, you know, they made a mistake. Everybody acknowledges they made a mistake. They simply should’ve said they were sorry and sent everybody their hundred dollars back, and everybody could’ve gone on with their lives. Instead, you know, the city of Girard is fighting tooth and nail.”
In April, the Ohio Supreme Court accepted the village of New Miami speed camera case. In a split decision, the judges accepted jurisdiction over the appeal filed by a group of about 33,000 motorists who took the tiny village (population close to 2,400) to court in 2013 over an alleged unmanned (and unconstitutional) speed camera program. The claimants are asking for $3.5 million—the total amount of fines accrued—in the case.
The claimants’ attorney Josh Engel stated that the decision to take the case signals that the high court is ready to tackle the critical question of due process. He added that the justices usually tackle more technical issues like home rule authority or jurisdiction, as demonstrated by the cases cited above.
The common thread through each of these legal challenges is the focus on cash rather than public safety by the cities employing the ticket camera programs. While it is unlikely Ohio will ban automated enforcement entirely, its court system will continue hearing from disgruntled drivers until municipalities like Brice, Toledo, Dayton, East Cleveland, Newburgh Heights, Girard, and New Miami learn that they are not above the law.