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

The Ohio Supreme Court accepted review of the New Miami speed camera case Tuesday, signaling it might finally be ready to decide significant due process rights, according to attorneys.

In a 4-3 decision, 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 speeders claim they are owed almost $3.5 million. 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 issue of speed cameras has been before the Ohio Supreme Court a lot,” Engel told the Journal-News. “The Supreme Court has never addressed the level of due process that has to be provided to motorists. In fact a number of times they have said, ‘Look, we’re not going to reach this issue.’ Every time it’s been before the court, it’s been on sort of technical issues like home rule authority or jurisdiction.”

The speeders claimed the Automated Speed Enforcement Program (ASEP) violated their due process rights because an administrative hearing rather than court proceeding was used. The speeders demanded the village refund around $3 million collected on the $95 tickets. Accumulated interest was tallied at more than $400,000.

New Miami has maintained it has home rule authority to enforce traffic laws and keep its citizens safe from motorists who speed. The village’s outside counsel, James Englert, was surprised the court took the case, given all the previous cases it has heard on the cameras.

He said that the since the state legislature has effectively stopped the use of speed cameras — those new laws are tangled up in the courts too — while these court cases have been running, any decision the court makes won’t impact the future of the programs.

“Since the legislation has kind of eliminated the possibility there are going to be other cases involving these speed cameras,” he said, “I have to think they must be interested in the due process issues and they want to just nail them down in their application to other cases.”

Engel said that 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 village has spent $435,805 fighting this case that has gone to the appeals courts several times.

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.

Oster also decided if the village ultimately has to pay the speeders back with interest, it can do so over 10 years. That issue isn’t part of this appeal but could be if the speeders prevail on the main point. New Miami Mayor Stephanie Chandler told the Journal-News she isn’t really surprised the high court took the case.

“I really didn’t know what to expect, I’m not surprised, we’ll just have to wait and see how it goes,” Chandler said.

New Miami was forced shut off the pole-mounted speed catchers at the beginning of the case in 2014 when the program was ruled unconstitutional. The lucrative program was re-booted in 2016 with hand-held devises until a new law took effect July 2019, that makes it financially impossible for the village to operate the cameras.

New Miami and several other jurisdictions statewide sued the state over the punitive laws. Common Pleas Court Judge Greg Howard has yet to rule on New Miami’s case.

Recently a state appeals court mostly upheld a lower court’s ruling that the state restrictions unconstitutionally limit Dayton’s legislative authority and home-rule powers.

Engel said it will take 9 months to a year for the high court case to run its course. During the protracted litigation the speeders’ attorneys have tried some novel legal maneuvers, like trying to garnish proceeds of the speed camera program when it was restarted and requiring appointment of a financial watchdog over the village.

Both measures failed and Engel said at this juncture “I’ve been know to tilt at windmills every now and again, but it’s hard to tilt at windmills at the Supreme Court.”

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