Return of Dayton’s red light cameras uncertain after Supreme Court arguments

The return of redlight cameras to busy intersections is anything but certain after the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments in January over a state law designed to make it nearly impossible for cities to use them.

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The new law, that took effect in March 2015, imposes hefty requirements on cities that want to use the cameras: a full-time police officer must be posted at each camera in operation, a three-year traffic study must be conducted before a camera is deployed, and cities must give speeders “leeway” — 6 miles per hour over in a school zone and 10 mph over elsewhere — before issuing tickets.

The city of Dayton is challenging the law, saying it violates the Home Rule provision in the state constitution, which gives municipalities the right to self-govern. Springfield, Akron, East Cleveland others filed briefs supporting Dayton’s argument.

Home Rule applies if city regulations don’t conflict with the state’s general laws. Oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court by Dayton Assistant City Attorney John Musto and Ohio Solicitor General Eric Murphy centered on what is and isn’t a general law.

General laws must deal with police, sanitary or other similar regulations and regulate citizen conduct. Musto argued that the traffic camera law regulates police conduct, but not citizen conduct. Murphy argued that the camera law must be viewed in the context of the whole traffic code, which is a general law.

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Opponents call traffic cameras automated speed traps deployed just to churn up money for government coffers. Proponents, though, say the cameras free police officers to do other work and prompt motorists to change their dangerous driving habits.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Pat DeWine, Bill O’Neill and Judith French peppered the two attorneys with questions. O’Connor said the “most troubling” part of the law is that it requires that a police officer “babysit” the camera while violent crime may be occurring elsewhere in the city.

Murphy said the Ohio General Assembly heard testimony about traffic safety as well as complaints that cities use the cameras to generate fines. The requirement that an officer be posted with each camera was considered “a reasonable compromise,” Murphy said.

A decision, expected weeks or months from now, may determine whether Ohio’s 8-million licensed drivers can be ticketed for infractions caught on cameras and whether cities’ home rule authority is weakened.

Cities have won traffic camera cases before the Ohio Supreme Court in 2008 and 2014 but lost issues of Home Rule on gun and predatory lending cases in recent years, Musto said.

The oral arguments Tuesday marked two firsts: the proceedings were webcast in high definition by the Ohio Channel and two new justices joined the bench. Republicans Pat Fischer and Pat DeWine, son of AG Mike DeWine, won election in November.



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