CINCINNATI – Drivers who paid tickets from Elmwood Place’s speed cameras want a judge to order the village to refund them more than $1.7 million without a trial.
Judge Robert Ruehlman heard arguments in the motions filed by both sides on Thursday. Ruehlman said he would issue a summary judgment on Jan. 23.
The plaintiffs argued they are entitled to a declaratory judgment because Elmwood Place did not comply with publication requirements under Ohio law when it introduced the ordinance allowing the cameras. The village said it substantially complied.
Elmwood Place wants Ruehlman to rule against the reimbursements or wait until his earlier rulings are appealed.
The motion filed by attorney Mike Allen seeks $1,760,859.18 – the total revenue from the speed camera program - plus interest, costs and attorney fees.
Should it lose, the village argued, it should not have to pay back all the money collected since it split the pot 60-40 with Optotraffic, the company that installed and operated the cameras. The village’s share was $1,056,515, according to an April 5 email accounting from Optotraffic. The Maryland-based company got roughly $704,344.
A ruling for the plaintiffs could be a major financial setback for the small village of about 2,200 residents, although the village's special solicitor, Judd Uhl, told the court the village had put the ticket money in reserve.
The village contends that it shouldn’t have to pay attorney fees because there isn't sufficient evidence that the village acted in bad faith.
Last March, Ruehlman ruled the cameras unconstitutional and ordered the village to shut them down. In October, he granted class-action status to thousands of motorists who sued the village for a refund.
The village issued approximately 20,000 tickets from the three speed cameras it operated between September 2012 and March 2013, Ruehlman wrote in a previous ruling.
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, the vice mayor, stepped in to replace Morgan.
Allen filed for the class action and called it “a victory for the common man and woman.”
“If you look at those people who were out at Elmwood at those hearings, it was people on fixed incomes, elderly people. They shelled out 105 bucks, in some cases more, to Elmwood,” Allen said at the time.
In his March ruling, Ruehlman said the speed cameras were illegal because they violated due process, and he issued a permanent injunction against them. He rejected the village’s claim that they were installed to promote safety.
In June, Ruehlman found the village and Optotraffic in contempt because they continued to operate the cameras after his order to stop. The village argued that it was just collecting data, but Allen noted in his motion that the village continued to collect money from tickets previously issued.
Ruehlman ordered that all money collected from drivers after his March stop order be repaid. That amounted to about $48,500. He also had the sheriff’s office confiscate the cameras until the money was returned.
In his March ruling, Ruehlman called the use of speed cameras “a scam motorists can’t win” and “a game of three card monte.”
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 were in use, 6,600 tickets went out - triple the village's population. Before some unsuspecting drivers realized it, they had racked up multiple citations.
Once a citation was issued, Ruehlman’s ruling said, there was virtually no way drivers could defend themselves in court. 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.
Allen argued that Optotraffic couldn’t be trusted to calibrate the cameras accurately.
At the time, Ruehlman ordered Elmwood Place to pay back 10 plaintiffs who sued the village separately from Allen’s action. The judge also made the village pay legal fees.
Allen has also sued New Miami over the speed cameras in that Butler County village. That case is pending.
In June, the Ohio House passed a bill that would make speed cameras and red-light cameras illegal except in school zones.
The bill, sponsored by Dale Mallory (D-Cincinnati) and Ron Maag (R-Lebanon), has had several recent hearings in the Senate committee on State Government Oversight and Reform.
The bill faces opposition from legislators in Columbus, Cleveland, Akron and Toledo, which collect millions of dollars from traffic cameras.
Opponents say they want
to regulate the cameras, not outlaw them.