CINCINNATI - A Hamilton County judge’s scathing ruling last week that found Elmwood Place’s traffic camera law unenforceable and invalid could mark the beginning of changes for other municipalities with similar laws, said the local lawyer who brought the case.
Judge Robert Ruehlman’s finding that the village’s law violated due process rights of drivers may lay the legal groundwork on how other cities, villages and towns handle the process by which drivers contest a speed or red light civil citation issued from a camera.
“I think this is going to set off a firestorm for ordinary citizens across the country against those municipalities not giving them a fair opportunity to fight these citations,” said attorney Mike Allen, who brought the case on behalf of those fighting against Elmwood Place’s cameras and is considering bring a class-action suit.
It was not immediately clear how widespread the use of traffic cameras is across the nation. In Ohio, there are at least 16 Ohio municipalities that use some kind of red light or speed camera.
And while there is no state law regulating or permitting the use of cameras, legislation prohibiting municipal corporations, counties, townships and the State Highway Patrol from using traffic photo-monitoring devices is being considered. Rep. Ron Maag, R-Lebanon, is spearheading the initiative.
At issue in the Elmwood Place case was how drivers were treated after the citation was issued.
“It’s a due process of law question: There is no ability to cross examine witnesses, because they’re aren’t any,’’ Allen added. “It’s just not a fair system.”
'Scam motorists can't win'
Ruehlman’s blistering ruling – in which he called the ordinance “a scam motorists can’t win” and a “game of 3 card Monty” - required Elmwood Place to immediately cease the use of cameras and it prohibits their further use.
Allen has said he expects the village to appeal. Calls to the village solicitor were not returned Friday.
Cameras were located at six locations in Elmwood Place. They ran 24 hours per day. There was a five-mph threshold until the cameras snapped a photo of alleged violators. Once a citation was issued, the ruling said, their was virtually no way drivers could defend themselves in court.
The ruling also noted that Optotraffic only calibrated the cameras once a year. Each civil citation is “verified by a law enforcement officer,” according to Elmwood Police.
Ruehlman pointed to the financial stake Optotraffic had in their use. Since the program started in September 2012, citations from the cameras generated about $1.5 million, of which $900,000 went to the village and $500,000 was paid to Optotraffic.
Proponents contend the red light and speed cameras help slow traffic speed, prevent accidents, snag violators and allow municipalities to keep an eye on the roads at a reduced financial cost. Critics suggest the use of cameras, which are typically operated by private companies in partnership with cities, is a technique used by cash-strapped municipalities to generate revenue.
Money is not incentive
Other area municipalities rejected that notion.
Middletown and Hamilton and the village of New Miami employ speed and red light cameras to some degree. But each use different protocols when issuing civil citations.
In Hamilton, officers have mounted a radar unit to an unmarked police car, which is positioned on the road in an attempt to catch traffic violators. The radar is the same used in patrol cars, said Sgt. Ed Buns, the traffic division supervisor.
The data and photos are sent to Redflex, which is a contracted vendor. Redflex reviews the ownership records of the vehicle in question, the still photos and video captured by the camera. If Redflex officials find an “impediment to the validity of the citation, they remove it from their records,” Buns said.
Buns reviews the data and approves or dismisses the citation before a driver receives it.
There is only one vehicle in use in Hamilton and an officer calibrates the radar every day it’s in use. The penalty is a $95 civil citation that is not reported to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Buns said. From March 31, 2010 through Jan. 31, 20,782 citations were issued that generated $958,636.
“I don’t think anyone can say we’re after the money,” Buns said. “We’re not interested in that or in how many we write.”
Rather he added: “It is used as a tool to slow people down just like an officer posted on the road. I’m not opposed to the legislature putting reasonable controls on it.”
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