Traffic ticket cameras issue could go to Supreme Court, experts say

Dayton has left the red light and speeding cameras on citing Home Rule, but state law says they are illegal unless a police officer is present.

Appeal to the state’s highest court seems inevitable, legal experts said. The timing isn’t certain, but the court could speed the case up or decline to hear it after it finishes in the courts of appeal.

State law now requires a police officer to be posted anywhere a traffic ticket camera operates — a requirement deemed too expensive by cities using the cameras. Meanwhile, the ticket cameras in Dayton, Akron and Toledo remain on and continue to issue enforceable citations.

Motorists must pay up. The cities operate under terms of common pleas court injunctions.

Both sides in the fight say they have a good chance at prevailing.

The high court would slice and dice a battle that touches hot-button issues including due process, the right of cities to fine citizens and by what process, surveillance technology, traffic safety, and state power versus local control.

The most basic question, according to legal experts: How deep can the state reach into a city’s administration of its ordinances?

“The state is really intruding on the municipality’s processes,” said Ohio State University law professor Chris Walker. Prior Supreme Court rulings on home rule have come with split voting by justices, he added, making this one a tough call.

Tom Hagel, professor of law at the University of Dayton, said the Ohio Constitution will be center stage.

“What it comes down to — Home Rule authority comes from the Ohio Constitution,” he said. “It’s an issue of constitutional construction and interpretation.”

The legislation restricting use of the cameras was championed by state Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who received a ticket from a Columbus traffic camera in 2010. Traffic camera video released by the Columbus Department of Public Safety showed Seitz’s silver sedan tapping the brakes and then rolling through a right-on-red at Town and Fourth streets in downtown Columbus.

Dayton city attorney John Musto will defend the city in the Second District Court of Appeals in Dayton at some point against the Ohio Attorney General’s effort to overturn the injunction. Musto has a couple of previous Supreme Court rulings in mind.

In the first case, the village of Lindale sought to overturn a state prohibition on issuing speeding and weight violation tickets on interstate freeways within its jurisdiction. The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that Lindale had the right under the home rule amendment in the state constitution.

In the second case, Bradley Walker, who received a ticket from a RedFlex Traffic Systems, Inc., traffic camera in Toledo, paid the $120 civil penalty, and promptly challenged the whole business in court. His contention was that Toledo Municipal Code deprived him of municipal court jurisdiction by allowing the Toledo Police Department to handle ticket objections via municipal administrative proceedings.

He also claimed the system shorted him of due process. The city of Dayton has a system similar to Toledo’s, allowing appeals before a hearing officer, an attorney appointed by the mayor.

The Ohio Sixth District Court of Appeals agreed with Walker, but the city appealed to the high court. On Dec. 18, the Supreme Court ruled that municipal courts aren’t the only places where traffic violations can be dealt with. Home-rule authority gave Toledo city administrators the authority to handle such matters, the court said.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office also has some ideas in mind. A motion the AG filed in Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas on March 23 gives some hints at where the state will take its argument.

The motion notes that the state legislation doesn’t outlaw the traffic cameras, it “is just one part of Ohio’s comprehensive legislative scheme governing traffic and traffic cameras that applies to all citizens generally.”

In 2009, the state passed legislation requiring signs alert motorists to the presence of the cameras, it adds. Such guidelines are nothing new, the state said, citing Ohio law that governs other aspects of traffic regulation including traffic signals.

Further, according to the Home Rule Amendment language, cities have authority to local self-government provided it doesn’t conflict with general law.

The AG’s office, said spokesman Dan Tierney, “has a duty to defend the constitutionality of laws passed by the General Assembly. This law is no exception, and we will vigorously defend it through the appeals process.”

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