Ohio Supreme Court takes up another traffic camera case
The court will decide whether financial regulations on communities operating speed and red-light cameras passed in 2019 are constitutional.
The Ohio Supreme Court will once again decide a case involving the use of traffic cameras, this time from two northeast Ohio communities.
Newburgh Heights and East Cleveland are challenging rules in the 2019 transportation budget for communities running red light and speed camera programs.
For years, the arguments over traffic cameras have been divided over whether they are a safety tool at intersections and a way to get drivers to slow down on long straightaway streets, or whether they are a cash grab by communities with millions going to the private companies that install and run those cameras.
In 2013, as the House moved to ban traffic cameras, then-Rep. Mike Curtin (D-Columbus) cited stats from police that show cameras do cut down on crashes at intersections where they’re installed.
“The societal harm caused by a heavy-handed state-government-mandated disabling of a technology proven to improve public safety is permanent, profound and even life-shattering for some of our constituents," Curtin said.
Also on the House floor, then-Representative Ron Maag (R-Lebanon) said there was a reason about a dozen cities were using them.
“Now let’s be candid about the purpose of these cameras. Their main goal is to generate revenue," Maag said.
But his fellow Republican Ross McGregor, then also a state representative from Springfield, argued for limits rather than an outright ban to protect communities running those camera programs.
“We’re blowing a hole in local government budgets," McGregor said.
In 2017, after reports of some communities getting huge percentages of their overall money from traffic cameras, Sen. Hearcel Craig (D-Columbus) proposed a cap on how much of their budgets cities could bring in from camera programs.
“This whole question of just simply getting revenue. And it really not does not get to the question of public safety," Craig said in an interview for "The State of Ohio".
The legislature’s bipartisan attempts to regulate and even ban cameras have resulted in some laws passing, one being vetoed by Republican former Gov. Bob Taft in 2006, and several being challenged in the Ohio Supreme Court.
The latest case involves the 2019 state transportation budget. It set several rules on cameras – for instance, requiring municipalities to hear disputes over tickets in municipal or county courts instead of administrative courts, which are less expensive, mandating a $26 filing fee that goes to legal aid societies and the Ohio Public Defender’s Office and demanding filing fees and court costs be deposited in advance.
But perhaps the biggest change was that the budget allowed the state to reduce local government fund money to camera-program-operating communities, which are required to report the revenue from those programs to the state.
Steven Carney with the Attorney General’s office told the justices no community is guaranteed local government fund money, and that the financial limits don’t stop cities from operating those cameras.
“There’s no intersection here. We keep spending over here. They keep doing traffic tickets over there. We’re on parallel roads. There’s no red light here because we don’t intersect," Carney said.
East Cleveland has been operating speed and red light cameras since 2006. Law director Willa Hemmons argued that her city’s residents voted to keep that camera program, and that they pay state taxes that go into the local government fund.
“The state has very paternalistically decided that it is the state’s money. It’s not the state’s money, it’s the people’s money. East Clevelanders pay taxes and they also have a right to ‘home rule’," Hemmons said.
Michael Cicero argued for the village of Newburgh Heights, operating speed-only cameras since 2014. He said the financial rules can prevent communities from keeping the cameras on.
“There is an economic guillotine where you have to pay a nonrefundable filing fee even though 60% of the cases will never be heard by a municipal court. Then even if the village wins, you still can’t recover the filing fee. Then you have a local government fund reduction," Cicero told the justices.
But Carney noted that Newburgh Heights brought in $2.4 million from cameras in 2018, with $764,000 going to an outside camera company, but lost only $60,000 in state aid.
“Given the figures of the $60k, and several million dollars, this is not an economic guillotine. It’s not even a shaving nick," Carney said.
Several times, the justices appeared to question whether the rules inhibited camera programs and the big money they bring in. Here’s Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who as lieutenant governor in the late 90s was known to have had some speeding and traffic troubles.
“So Counsel, you’re collecting $150 for each ticket that’s paid in Newburgh Heights, right?” O'Connor asked.
“Theoretically," responded Cicero.
“No, I know that," O'Connor replied, with some laughter breaking out on the bench and in the courtroom.
A lower court ruled the withholding of the local government fund money was unconstitutional.
Dayton and Toledo also filed briefs supporting Newburgh Heights and East Cleveland.