Columbus has nabbed more than 250,000 traffic scofflaws with its red-light cameras since 2006, pocketing nearly $8 million in fines and reducing crashes at monitored intersections by nearly three-fourths.
But Columbus and other cities say that a legal fight over photo traffic enforcement is about more — much more — than money and traffic safety.
Appeals courts in Toledo and Cleveland have ruled that city ordinances making red-light and speed-camera violations in-house administrative matters illegally deprive municipal courts of jurisdiction to handle moving traffic violations.
Unlike with parking violations, Ohio lawmakers have not empowered cities to determine guilt or innocence in administrative hearings involving civil violations of traffic laws, depriving those cited of due process, the courts ruled.
Cities fear that a ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court overturning cities’ handling of red-light camera ticket appeals in local hearings could trash their ability to handle other violations in-house, from zoning to housing to health matters. In Columbus, only a fraction of red-light cases involve appeals. About 64,000 violators simply paid $95 fines in 2012, while about 1,000 appeals were conducted, with only 200 succeeding in getting their tickets tossed.
Lawyers for both sides, including the city of Columbus, are making arguments in recent filings with the Ohio Supreme Court. No oral arguments have been scheduled, and it’s uncertain when the court might rule.
Cities argue that upholding the ruling in the Toledo case and rejecting city hearings on civil traffic violations “could lead to immense disruptions in city administrations throughout Ohio” and pack courts with costly cases. They contend that municipal courts hold no jurisdiction over civil matters.
George Speaks, a Columbus assistant public-safety director, said such hearings on housing, building, unemployment and a host of other matters overseen by hearing officers provide quicker decisions that still can be appealed in the courts.
“To not allow administrative hearings would be a huge policy change that would be detrimental to not only the person seeking a quick resolution, but also the entire already overburdened judicial system,” Speaks said.
Andrew Mayle, a Fremont lawyer who won the rulings on behalf of clients in the Toledo and Cleveland cases, countered: “That argument is so overhyped.”
State law gives cities administrative power to handle certain violations of municipal ordinances, such as nuisance and zoning matters, “but the city doesn’t get to pick if it goes to court or not for violation of a traffic ordinance,” he said.
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The case is not about the use of photo enforcement. That’s a political question, not a legal one, Mayle said. In an Akron case, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that traffic-enforcement cameras are legal.
Even if they lose, cities seemingly could operate their red-light and speed cameras, although the cases would have to be filed in municipal courts and the cities would receive a lesser share of the fines, he said.
But Andy Douglas, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice who represents Toledo in its appeal, said a ruling against the cities could lead to claims of “unjust enrichment” which seek the return of fines split by cities and their red-light-camera vendors.
“Home rule gives cities the rights to do the things they need to govern their cities,” said Douglas, who added that cities have not invaded the province of courts because it exists only between courts, not with other entities such as cities.
Meanwhile, two lawsuits in Franklin County Common Pleas Court seek the return of more than $16 million in Columbus fines. And a bill passed by the Ohio House in June to ban photo traffic enforcement languishes in the Senate, where it has not received a hearing.
In Hamilton County, a judge has declared Elmwood Place’s speed cameras illegal, declaring them a “scam.”
Columbus has used the near $8 million in fines it has received since 2006 on its police force, purchasing cruisers, laptop computers, dashboard cameras and overtime for a crime-fighting initiative. The city also has issued nearly 9,300 speed-camera tickets since 2011 in school zones and areas where children gather, like parks.
Redflex, an Australian-owned and Arizona-based company that provides and operates the camera system, has received nearly $9 million under its contract with Columbus. The deal recently was revised to give the city more money — $65.26 from each $95 fine.
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)