CINCINNATI - A judge's upcoming ruling in a lawsuit against a Cincinnati-area village's speed cameras will lead off a pivotal year in the accelerating debate over traffic cameras in Ohio.
Ticketed motorists want Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman to order the village of Elmwood Place to refund speeding fines and fees totaling some $1.8 million. The village says there shouldn't be refunds for speeding violations and has appealed the judge's earlier rulings against cameras.
Ruehlman last year ordered the village to halt its camera use, comparing the automated system to a rigged card game. He also has approved class-action status for ticketed Elmwood Place drivers.
The judge has said he'll rule Jan. 23. Several other lawsuits are pending, including one before the Ohio Supreme Court challenging traffic cameras in Toledo. Meanwhile, state legislators are pushing ahead on measures to either ban or restrict camera enforcement statewide. Supporters say cameras stretch law enforcement resources and make communities safer, while foes say they are primarily revenue-raisers for local governments that violate drivers' rights.
"No question it's a crucial year for speed cameras in the state of Ohio," said attorney Mike Allen, who filed the Elmwood Place lawsuit and is involved in similar litigation against the village of New Miami in nearby Butler County. "There are other challenges throughout the country; I think this year is going to be determinative of what happens with traffic cameras in Ohio."
Arguing for Elmwood Place before the judge last month, attorney Judd Uhl described cameras as allowing police to focus on violent crimes and drugs and have more presence on the streets. The village has said the camera enforcement in late 2012 resulted in a sharp decline in speeding on its streets.
But some business owners and a church pastor said the resulting ticket blitz drove people away. Motorists' attorneys said the cameras violated constitutional rights to due process, giving drivers little chance to challenge the citations. They also said the village didn't give proper notice that the camera enforcement was starting, resulting in thousands of speeding citations within the first month in a village of 2,200 people.
Uhl said in court that camera enforcement has been increasingly used in communities across Ohio and the country and has been upheld by other courts.
The Elmwood Place case helped spur new lawsuits against cameras in New Miami and in the northern Ohio village of Lucas. It's also drawn the attention of national opponents of camera enforcement, heartened by Ruehlman's sharp attack on the setup as "a scam motorists can't win." Ruehlman's decision in the case will likely be appealed by the losing side.
Meanwhile, the 2011 Toledo case that the Ohio Supreme Court will consider this year has statewide implications. That case challenges the use of administrative hearing officers instead of courts to handle camera ticket cases, saying the city is usurping court authority and violating motorists' rights to due process.
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.