COLUMBUS, Ohio — The New Miami speed camera case has been crawling through the courts for years, but it will make a final stop in the Ohio Supreme Court on Jan. 26, when alleged speeders will argue why they should be repaid $3 million by the village.
In a 4-3 decision last April, the high court accepted jurisdiction over the appeal filed by the group who took the village to court in 2013 over what they called an unconstitutional, unmanned speed camera program. The village used an out-of-state third party to manage the program.
The alleged speeders claim they are owed almost $3.5 million with interest. One of their attorneys, Josh Engel, said the decision signals the court, which has issued other speed decisions statewide, is ready to tackle the big question: What process is necessary to actually levy a fine to those officials believe have violated a law?
The process New Miami used was flawed, according to two Butler County Common Pleas court judges, because the camera program does not allow drivers to obtain discovery, subpoena witnesses, or question the people who calibrated the cameras and approved the violation. The 12th District Court of Appeals decided for New Miami. After the appeals court changed the ruling the case was appealed again to the Ohio Supreme Court.
“The village’s ordinance unconstitutionally ties the hands of vehicle owners by denying them the ability to meaningfully challenge their liability through the kinds of basic records and witness testimony that it would not be overly burdensome for the village to provide,” the attorneys for the plantiffs wrote in a brief to the court. “The village’s ordinance makes a mockery of due process by inappropriately privileging the efficient collection of money over accuracy and reliability and must be struck down.”
The village has spent more than $450,000 fighting this case for the past eight years. The litigation has taken three visits to the 12th District and two visits to the Ohio Supreme Court, where jurisdiction was denied. New Miami challenged the lower court’s rulings on class action status twice and a sovereign immunity issue. Until Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Oster issued his final judgment, the village could not appeal the entire case.
New Miami has maintained it has home rule authority to enforce traffic laws and keep its citizens safe from motorists who speed and noted in its brief to the court this case “is the last in a long line of state and federal case law denying constitutional challenges to virtually identical (speed camera) administrative hearings.”
They also maintain the degree of due process afforded motorists in the ordinance, which provides an administrative hearing, is sufficient, as evidenced by the facts of the case.
In its brief the village said it was “acutely ironic” the alleged speeders “insinuate that ‘the village’s hearsay evidence will necessarily prevail by default’ and the outcome of the administrative hearings are ‘practically guaranteed’ since the record establishes that every one of the named plaintiffs who contested liability by timely requesting an administrative hearing had their citation dismissed.”
Engel told the Journal-News previously, if this case were allowed to stand, municipalities could turn many criminal offenses into civil matters to collect fines.
“For example, if you get into a fight in a bar rather than getting charged with assault, they’ll do a civil violation and not give you due process and raise a whole bunch of money off it,” Engel said.
The justices will take time, usually months, to deliberate after hearing the oral arguments, so the ultimate decision is still a ways down the road. If they decide in favor of the village, the speed cameras likely won’t begin rolling again any time soon. The village restarted the program using hand-held speed catchers several years ago, but is now locked in litigation with the state over punitive new laws that have curtailed their program.