By Maggie Thurber | for Ohio Watchdog
The Ohio Supreme Court may decide if red light cameras violate the Ohio Constitution.
The issue is if a city’s administrative process for issuing civil violations for running red lights violates the constitution, which grants judicial authority solely to the courts.
Cities and the companies that operate the cameras want the state’s highest court to decide the matter after losing an appeals court ruling.
In February 2011, Bradley Walker received and subsequently paid a $120 red light camera fine. He then sued RedFlex Traffic Systems and the City of Toledo in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, alleging the civil penalty imposed for running a red light usurped the municipal court’s jurisdiction, resulting in unjust enrichment of the city and company.
Toledo and RedFlex, the Australian company contracted to operate the city’s red light and speed cameras, argued the constitutionality question had been settled in Mendenhall v. Akron, which ruled cities have the ability to use cameras under their home-rule authority.
Walker and his attorney, Andrew Mayle, argued that while cities have the legal authority to use cameras to enforce traffic rules, only the municipal court can hear such charges — not an administrative hearing officer many cities have established. Because the state constitution grants sole authority to the courts for non-parking traffic violations, the penalties collected through the administrative hearing process constitute an unjust enrichment, they argued.
Walker’s suit asks that every dollar taken from motorists through this process be refunded.
The Common Pleas Court dismissed the case and Walker appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeals.
Writing for the majority, Judge Arlene Singer rejected the Mendenhall claim and agreed with Walker that using an administrative hearing office to handle challenges to the red light charges violated the state constitution.
“The plain language of the ordinance also reveals that appellee city has attempted to divest the municipal court of some, or all, of its jurisdiction by establishing an administrative alternative without the express approval of the legislature,” Singer wrote. “Such usurpation of jurisdiction violates Ohio Constitution, Article IV, Section 1, and is therefore a nullity.”
Now the Ohio Municipal League, on behalf of Toledo, Columbus and Dayton, and Optotraffic, LLC, another red light camera company, have filed amicus briefs urging the Ohio Supreme Court to accept the appeal.
“Considering the impact of this issue just on photo enforcement programs, almost 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 wrote in its filing.
Optotraffic, which had its cameras in the Village of Elmwood Place confiscated after a court ruling, argued in its brief that the issue “is not going away on its own.”
Recent decisions, they wrote, “have not dissuaded would-be plaintiffs from questioning the ongoing legitimacy of traffic photo enforcement, nor have the plaintiffs been dissuaded by the data demonstrating photo enforcement to be an effective tool to keep motorists safe and law-abiding.”
Toledo’s filings claim that if the Sixth District ruling is allowed to stand, the city wouldn’t be able to have administrative hearings for any of the ordinances they have in place; that their board of zoning appeals, plan commission and tax appeals board would be nullified and those cases forced upon the municipal court.
Walker’s attorney calls this “pure fantasy,” noting that when individuals violate city ordinances requiring licenses, those cases are heard by the municipal court.
The jurisdiction of the court isn’t the only issue — millions of dollars are also at stake, though Walker’s attorney argues the amount of money shouldn’t have bearing on whether or not the Supreme Court decides takes up the case.
“If the Sixth District ruling is not reversed, the financial impact upon cities could be significant as, impliedly, the ruling gives a green light to claims for unjust enrichment against cities that have enacted and enforced local ordinances in good faith,” Toledo wrote.
If Walker prevails, fines collected over the past six years, the statute of limitations, would have to be returned. RedFlex has claimed that amount is $100 million.
“Indeed, the moneys RedFlex refers to are a fraction of “big city” annual budgets across Ohio, collectively exceeding several billion dollars per year,” Walker’s attorney wrote. “Further, government officials from these cities — including Toledo’s mayor — have consistently maintained that photo-enforcement programs are ‘not about money.’”
In 2012, when Toledo added more cameras, the city admitted revenue was the only reason. The cameras generated roughly $1 million in revenue in 2011 and 2012, with $3.13 million expected in 2013. Toledo keeps 75 percent of the $120 fine while RedFlex keeps the remainder.
According to the Supreme Court clerk’s office, justices can take several months in to decide whether or not to accept the case. If approved, parties will make additional filings and the case will be scheduled for oral arguments. If justices decline to accept the case, the Sixth District decision will stand.