CINCINNATI – Elmwood Place would have to repay nearly $1.8 million it collected from speeding tickets generated by its illegal traffic cameras if a judge’s ruling sticks.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman, who called the speed cameras a scam, said the village can wait until its appeal of class-action status is resolved. Ruehlman said he would not enter a final judgment until then.
The final judgment would cover as many as 10,000 drivers who paid the $105 tickets and fees in 2012 and 2013. Some drivers got and paid more than one ticket.
Attorney Mike Allen sued the village last year for $1,760,859.18 – the total revenue from the speed camera program. The village must also pay Allen's attorney fees because the village acted in bad faith, Ruehlman ruled.
“It’s the first time to my knowledge that a court in this country has awarded victims of a speed camera program a financial settlement,” Allen said. “We’re happy about that. We hope it sets a precedent.”
Allen suggested this might be a good time for Elmwood Place, a small village of 2,200, to settle out of court and avoid more lawyer's costs and lengthy appeals.
“This hits them in the pocketbook pretty hard,” Allen said. “We're calling upon them at this point to consider instead of paying lawyers, start thinking about paying the people that were the victims of this program.
"We’re willing to entertain any reasonable offer. They’ve not shown a willingness to do that up to now. I don’t know why. But the ball is truly in their court.”
The special solicitor for Elmwood Place, Judd Uhl, told WCPO he is still confident that the village can win on appeal.
“Unfortunately, the way the decision is written, we’re still stuck in Judge Ruehlman’s courtroom,” Uhl said. “We’re not going to have our day in the court of appeals until at least a year from now, possibly a couple years from now, because the continued appeal on whether it’s a certified class has to wind its way through the Ohio courts.
“The bulk of the case law in Ohio supports the camera program that Elmwood has set up," Uhl said.
Uhl challenged Ruehlman on his ruling that the village had acted in bad faith when it just passed an ordinance “that’s in effect in dozens of other cities and villages throughout Ohio.
“The notion that this group of elected officials in Elmwood has somehow been dishonest or perpetrated a fraud simply by passing a law for a speed camera traffic program is just absurd,” Uhl said.
The possibility of a $1.8 million payout could have serious financial consequences for Elmwood Place, but Uhl said he wasn’t in a position to address that.
“We haven’t really discussed that. I’m handing the legal side of this case and defending the village from this lawsuit. I’m not involved in the business affairs and I’m certainly not involved in the treasury,” he said.
But at an October hearing, Uhl said the village had put aside the money it received from speed camera tickets.
If that's true, the village might still be $704,344 short.
Allen said the ruling puts Elmwood Place on the hook for the entire amount, even though the village had argued it shouldn’t have to pay back what its partner, Optotraffic, had taken in the deal.
The village shared the ticket revenue 60-40 with Optotraffic, the company that installed and operated the cameras, mailed the tickets and collected the money.
The village’s share was $1,056,515, according to an April 5 email accounting from Optotraffic. The Maryland-based company got $704,344.
Asked if Elmwood Place might go to court to try to recoup Optotraffic's share, Uhl said:
“That’s something we’ll have to discuss with the village if and when our appeals are exhausted. I don’t see foresee that happening. This is a program they entered into with Optotraffic; they’re partners with Optotraffic. It’s not like we have an adversarial relationship.”
It stands to reason that Elmwood Place figures it has a better chance to win in appeals court, where Allen won't have Ruehlman in his corner.
Last March, Ruehlman ruled the cameras were illegal and ordered the village to shut them down. He called it a money grab by the village, “a scam motorists can’t win” and “a game of three card monte,” comparing it to a rigged card game.
In April, Ruehlman held the village in contempt after Allen produced evidence that the village continued to operate the cameras and collect money from tickets previously issued. The village argued that the cameras were just collecting data.
In October, Ruehlman granted class-action status to Allen’s lawsuit. That ruling was appealed.
Several elected village leaders quit amid the controversy over the speed cameras. Mayor Stephanie Morgan resigned in October, and four of the seven council members resigned in May. Robert Schmid, a former police officer who has been recruited to fill one of the council vacancies, eventually became mayor.
The village operated three speed cameras from September 2012 to March 2013. The cameras were calibrated to ticket any vehicle going more than 5 mph
above the speed limit, officials said.
In the first month, the cameras "wrote" 6,600 tickets - triple the village's population. Before some unsuspecting drivers realized it, they had racked up multiple citations.
Once a citation was issued, there was virtually no way drivers could defend themselves., Ruehlman said in a previous ruling. Plus, drivers who opted for a hearing had to pay a $25 fee.
Ruehlman also noted that Optotraffic had a financial stake in their use. And Allen argued that Optotraffic couldn’t be trusted to calibrate the cameras accurately.
Ruehlman specifically ruled Thursday that the ordinance that Elmwood Place passed in order to operate the cameras was invalid and unenforceable because:
➢ the village did not give proper notice of it;
➢ it did not allow for motorists to dispute the ticket in court, and thus overrode the jurisdiction of a municipal court to hear violations of a municipal ordinance.
The fight over traffic cameras extends across Ohio, in big cities and small villages.
Columbus, Cleveland, Dayton, Akron and Toledo collect tens of millions of dollars from traffic cameras.
Those cities, Optotraffic and other camera operators, law enforcement officials and state senators are fighting legislation to ban speed and red light cameras statewide.
“The lobbying has really gotten hot and heavy,” Allen said.
Ohio House Bill 69, which would outlaw cameras except in school zones, has been stalled in a Senate committee for months. The bill, sponsored by Dale Mallory (D, Cincinnati) and Ron Maag (R, Lebanon), passed in the House last June on a bipartisan vote, 61-32.
Camera supporters say they reduce speeding and accidents and stretch law enforcement resources to focus on violent crimes and drugs. They say they want to regulate the cameras, not outlaw them.
Ohio Sen. Kevin Bacon (R, Columbus) said he would introduce a bill that satisfies Ruehlman, Allen and other critics who claim that speed cameras violate drivers' right to due process.
Bacon said his bill would require local law enforcement to review citations and allow Ohioans to appeal them.
“That would go a long way to address my concerns,” said Allen, “though I’d have to say, why not just use traditional radar?”
Bacon said his bill would also set statewide standards for traffic cameras where there are none, loosely based on Columbus' method, the Dayton Daily News reported. Bacon said communities would have to conduct safety studies before installing cameras, inform the public of the cameras' locations and purpose and provide safety data for intersections with cameras.
Bacon is chairman of the Senate committee where the House bill is stalled.
“I testified before his committee,” Allen said. “At least the people I know up there are trying to reach a compromise.”
While Allen said he remains “philosophically opposed” to traffic cameras, he said Bacon’s proposal, based on Columbus’ operation, has merit.
“Columbus is an example of a city doing it right. I think Hamilton does it right, too,” Allen said.
Columbus uses 34 cameras; Hamilton has one.
“Hamilton walked me through their operation and I came away impressed,” Allen said.
“They don’t overuse it. They have an officer assigned to the program who reviews actual video of the alleged offense, not just still photos. It’s a trained traffic officer and he has to sign off on it, and he rejects quite a few of them.
“For a city the size of Hamilton, they don’t write that many tickets. They have one camera and they take it to hot spots around the city.
“If we’re going to have these things, if the legislature is going to compromise, Hamilton and Columbus are good examples to follow,” Allen said.
The Elmwood Place case helped spur new lawsuits against cameras in New Miami and in the northern Ohio village of Lucas. It has also drawn the attention of national opponents of camera enforcement, heartened by Ruehlman's sharp attack on the setup.
Several other lawsuits are pending, including one before the Ohio Supreme Court challenging traffic cameras in Toledo.
The 2011 Toledo case challenges the use of administrative hearing officers instead of courts to handle camera ticket cases - the same objection Ruehlman cited in the Elmwood Place case. The appeals court agreed and declared Toledo’s ordinance unconstitutional.
The Ohio Municipal League, in a legal brief in support of Toledo, told the state's highest court the stakes are high.
"Considering the impact of this issue just on photo enforcement programs, about two dozen Ohio cities will be affected, including six of Ohio's seven largest cities, and potentially every Ohioan who drives or owns a vehicle," the league stated.
Depending on how long legal filings and arguments take, the high court could rule late this year.
"No question it's a crucial year for speed cameras in the state of Ohio," said Allen. "There are other challenges throughout the country; I think this year is going to be determinative of what happens with traffic cameras in Ohio."
Twelve states have passed laws to ban traffic
WCPO's Scott Wegener and The Associated Press contributed to this report.