Ohio Supreme Court Sides with State in Traffic Camera Penalty Standoff

The issue of whether the state has the authority to enforce a law imposing penalties against cities using traffic enforcement cameras saw support from the state’s Supreme Court June 20.

by Jim Provance, The Blade / June 21, 2018
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(TNS) — The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously sided with the state against the city of Toledo in finding that local courts overstepped their authority by holding the state in contempt for enacting financial penalties on traffic camera cities.

The high court overturned rulings by Lucas County Common Pleas Court and the Sixth District Court of Appeals, finding they unconstitutionally stepped on the General Assembly’s lawmaking power.

“Here, the trial court lacked authority to enjoin enforcement of the spending provisions relating to traffic cameras enacted in [House Bill] 64 because no action has been filed challenging their constitutionality and no court has found them unconstitutional,” Justice Sharon Kennedy wrote.

“Moreover, the April 2015 permanent-injunction order relied upon for the contempt order did not enjoin the General Assembly from enacting new legislation relating to traffic cameras, nor could it have, since the separation-of-powers doctrine preludes a court from enjoining the General Assembly from exercising its legislative power to enact laws,” she wrote.

City Law Director Dale Emch said the city will now directly file a lawsuit to challenge the spending provisions’ constitutionality.

“The state continues to penalize Toledo and other cities for their traffic-law enforcement cameras, in effect making roads less safe,” he said. “They are penalizing Toledo for making decisions as to what’s best for our city.”

The Supreme Court last year ruled in favor of Toledo and other traffic-camera cities by finding again that they had the constitutional home-rule authority to operate such programs. In the process, it struck down portions of a state law that imposed restrictions on how such programs operated.

Among those restrictions was a requirement that a police officer be present to witness the violation caught on camera, something the city contended would make the program economically infeasible to continue.

But this case revolved around a subsequent budget provision to reduce state aid to cities that did not comply with those restrictions. The reduction in Local Government Fund distributions would have offset the amount of fines contained in civil citations issued for violations, regardless of whether the cities collected all those fines.

That set up the potential for cities to actually lose money on the camera programs.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, a primary force behind the original budget language and a new bill revising it, said he doesn’t believe the court’s decision will result in the retroactive loss of millions in revenue for Toledo. He said he would prefer to wait for Senate passage of a new House-passed bill that does not tie the revenue to compliance with a state law that has since been partially invalidated.

“The bill we just passed says that, whether you’re compliant with state law or not, we are making the financial decision that if you choose to raise revenue that way you don’t need our revenue,” Mr. Seitz said. “It’s less likely that we would be intruding on home-rule powers.”

Mr. Emch disagreed with the contention that the cameras are all about cash.

“I think it makes people think,” he said. “It certainly makes me more conscious of my driving as I’m going through those areas. It makes all drivers a little more aware of their speedometer and think before a yellow light as to whether to push and go through.”

The lower courts had found the state in contempt for enacting the financial penalties after they had already issued an injunction on the legal restrictions. But Toledo never separately challenged the spending provisions’ constitutionality.

The financial penalties enacted in 2015 were never enforced as a result of the lower-court injunction. In March, the House of Representatives passed House Bill 410, which would withhold an amount equal to the fines actually collected rather than simply issued. That bill is pending in the Senate.

“This is a real shot across the bow to places like Toledo and Dayton that have been scofflaws for many years and have exalted their local situations above what the legislature believes is appropriate public policy,” Mr. Seitz said. “They had better tread very carefully, because after [House Bill] 410 passes, we will know whether this is about safety as the cities contend or is in fact about revenue.”

Through May, the city had collected $800,862 from stationary red-light cameras, for which it had budgeted $1.8 million for the year. By comparison, handheld speed-enforcement cameras — not affected by the state restrictions — brought in $2.1 million through April toward the $5.7 million budgeted.

Judge William A. Klatt, of the Columbus-based Tenth District Court of Appeals, sat on the case in the place of Justice Terrence O’Donnell, who had recused himself.

Justice Pat DeWine participated despite the fact that his father, Attorney General Mike DeWine, brought the appeal on the state’s behalf. He has taken the position that he does not have to recuse himself unless his father personally argues the case.

©2018 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.