Ohio Supreme Court set to hear arguments in New Miami speed camera case

The Gavel Sculpture in downtown Columbus sits in the reflecting pool alongside the Ohio Supreme Court building.

Combined ShapeCaption
The Gavel Sculpture in downtown Columbus sits in the reflecting pool alongside the Ohio Supreme Court building.

The New Miami speed camera case has been crawling through the courts for years, but early next year it will make a final stop in the Ohio Supreme Court where speeders will argue why they should be repaid $3 million.

The high court scheduled an oral argument for Jan. 26 when attorneys for about 33,000 speeders and the village of New Miami will spar over nearly $3.5 million. The court accepts an average of 6% of discretionary appeals filed per year.

In a 4-3 decision last April, the high court accepted jurisdiction over the appeal filed by a group of about 33,000 speeders who took the tiny village to court in 2013 over what they said was an unconstitutional, unmanned speed camera program. The village used an out-of-state third party to manage the program.

The 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 the question.

That 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 it was fine so the speeders took it to the Supreme Court.

ExploreWhen can you actually be fined? Big question facing Ohio Supreme Court in New Miami cameras case

“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 speeders attorneys 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 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 now is also locked in litigation with the state over punitive new laws that have curtailed their program.

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