Judge rules New Miami speeders owed $3 million

A Butler County judge has ruled the village of New Miami must repay speeders every penny of the $3 million it collected from drivers who were caught by the former stand-alone speed cameras.

Judge Michael Oster issued his ruling on Wednesday.

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“This court has already found council ordinance 1917 as adopted by the village of New Miami to be unconstitutional,” Oster wrote. “Accordingly, any collection or retention of the monies collected under the ordinance was wrongful. Based upon the aforementioned established Ohio law, this action sub justice is therefore not a civil suit for money damages; but rather, an action to correct the unjust enrichment of the village of New Miami.”

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The judge asked the speeders’ attorneys within 30 days to provide him with a spreadsheet of how much their clients were ticketed for, which is the total $3 million.

“The judge’s decision seems to very explicitly suggest that everything that people paid under the ordinance needs to be paid back,” Josh Engel, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said. “We are very pleased that all of the motorists are going to get their money back. I think it underlines a basic principle that the government must act within the Constitution and a government agency can’t take advantage of people.”

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James Englert, New Miami’s outside counsel who has handled the case, said this was really just a first step in the almost four-year-long litigation. He said Oster’s ruling was on the remedy but there are other issues, like the due process question, that are ripe for appeal before the 12th District Court of Appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court. Other courts, both state and federal have come down on the side of municipalities and he thinks the administrative hearing process in New Miami will meet Constitutional muster on appeal.

The village’s legal bill stands at around $100,000 and Englert said he believes this has been a good and necessary expenditure of taxpayer’s money.

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“It is worthwhile, it is an exercise of the police power to preserve safety within the village…,” he said. “The reason that it’s worthwhile pursuing it is the Supreme Court in Ohio in Mendenhall in 2008 found that automated traffic programs, red light and speeding camera programs are Constitutional. In 2014 the Supreme Court held that administrative hearings are Constitutional and within the power of municipalities like New Miami to use to enforce automated traffic procedures. The village thought that it was acting totally within it’s Constitutional statutory authority and it is just defending it’s ability to do that.”

Village Solicitor Dennis Adams told the Journal-News they can’t submit either the attorneys fees or final judgment to insurance, and he said they have 10 years to repay the speeders. An affidavit filed by Fiscal Officer Belinda Ricketts showed the village had $1.375 million cash in the general fund at the end of November and about $1.2 million of it was unencumbered.

New Miami’s speed cameras were declared unconstitutional in March 2014, and the case has been in and out of common pleas and appellate courts ever since. The Ohio Supreme Court declined a review of the case last summer.

The village cited 44,993 people and collected $1.8 million during the 15 months the cameras were rolling.

New Miami contracted with Optotraffic to run the speed camera program, and for that service, the Maryland traffic camera business was paid $1.2 million, or 40 percent of the total fine collection amount. So the final figure the speeders wanted to collect is $3 million. The village has maintained it is only liable for the $10,728 paid by speeders who actually went through the improper hearing process which is at the heart of the case.

The two sides had one meeting with a mediator last fall, and the judge gave them extra time following a hearing in December to try to reach an agreement.

The village reinstated its speed camera program early last year, under guidelines set down by new laws legislators enacted. That means on any given day or hour a police officer can be seen tucked in among buildings and garages, at the gateway to the village from Hamilton, with a hand-held speed camera trained on drivers. The village collected $424,196 through November of last year.

A safety study the village commissioned showed there were 26 accidents on the road from 2009 to 2013. A two-day speed survey in March shows 7,217 drove under the 35 mph speed limit; 8,035 drove between 36 and 40 mph and 2,456 people drove between 41 and 45 mph. There were 433 people who drove 10 miles or more over the limit and three people drove 61 mph or faster.

Court records indicate the CEO of Optotraffic Thomas Bouchard has sworn that of the 44,227 tickets issued under the old regime, 12,447 were sent to people caught going 50 mph or faster.

Future of cameras uncertain

The return of redlight cameras to busy intersections is anything but certain after the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments in January over a state law designed to make it nearly impossible for cities to use them.

The new law, that took effect in March 2015, imposes hefty requirements on cities that want to use the cameras: a full-time police officer must be posted at each camera in operation, a three-year traffic study must be conducted before a camera is deployed, and cities must give speeders “leeway” — 6 miles per hour over in a school zone and 10 mph over elsewhere — before issuing tickets.

The city of Dayton is challenging the law, saying it violates the Home Rule provision in the state constitution, which gives municipalities the right to self-govern. Springfield, Akron, East Cleveland others filed briefs supporting Dayton’s argument.

Home Rule applies if city regulations don’t conflict with the state’s general laws. Oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court by Dayton Assistant City Attorney John Musto and Ohio Solicitor General Eric Murphy centered on what is and isn’t a general law.

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