Due process loses a step with traffic camera ruling

We are disappointed by Wednesday’s Ohio Supreme Court ruling that effectively lifts important restrictions on local police departments’ use of traffic speed cameras.

The ruling, which came in a 5-2 vote following a constitutional challenge by the city of Dayton, determined the three provisions created by legislators to add some limits to the cameras’ use are unconstitutional when applied to Ohio’s municipalities and home-rule townships.

Under Ohio law, officers were required to be present with each traffic camera. The law also dictated that tickets may not be issued unless the speeder exceeded the limit by at least 6 mph in a school zone or 10 mph in other locations; and it required a safety study to be conducted and a “public information campaign” be created to inform the public about use of the cameras.

Each of these specifications was struck down as unconstitutional by votes from Justices Patrick Fischer, Maureen O’Connor, Sharon Kennedy, Judith French and Craig Baldwin of the Fifth District Court of Appeals sitting for Terrence O’Donnell.

Justices William O’Neill and R. Patrick DeWine dissented.

In his majority opinion, Justice Fischer noted that “requiring an officer’s presence at a traffic camera directly contradicts the purpose of a traffic camera — to conserve police resources. … Because the officer-present requirement in (Ohio law) infringes on municipalities’ home-rule authority without serving an overriding state interest … it is unconstitutional.”

In his dissent, Justice Dewine said this: “The legislature presumably sought a way to deal with concerns that traffic cameras were being misused for revenue purposes while at the same time allowing municipalities some opportunity to use the devices. The lead opinion apparently doesn’t share the concern about the misuse of traffic cameras.”

We have consistently argued in this space against the use of traffic cameras, which, as we’ve predicted, have turned into little more than policing for profit.

Locally, communities like Girard, Liberty, Hubbard Township, Weathersfield and Youngstown have adopted use of the cameras, claiming to be focused on safety, yet the quick click-click of a camera held by a hidden police officer comes with no obligation to pull out and actually chase down this “unsafe,” law-breaking motorist.

No, just let them carry on at their unsafe speeds until a citation and invoice shows up in their mailboxes weeks from now.

The activity, however, has created a windfall in revenue for communities looking for ways to make up reduced tax revenue. Local governments that have failed to grow funds through taxing residents it seems have simply resorted to ticketing their unsuspecting motorists who then are greeted by a citation and invoice in their mailboxes.

Girard, for instance, issues $100 fines to the owner of an automobile photographed speeding through the city, or $150 if it occurs in a construction zone.

It should be noted that despite the ruling, Girard Mayor James Melfi already has said he intends to continue to have city police officers man the cameras.

Elected officials in many local communities have argued these cameras are all about safety, but now five Ohio justices have determined there is no need to even go through the motions of conducting a safety study to determine whether unsafe areas truly exist.

These justices also ruled there can be no minimum speed requirement, thereby establishing that if a city so chooses, exceeding the speed limit by as little as 2 or 3 mph now could result in a traffic camera-generated speeding ticket.

Now, we really don’t expect any community to issue tickets at such low excess speeds, but the fact remains that they could.

As we see it, the ability to now simply mount an unmanned camera along a public thoroughfare without a police officer anywhere to be found just brings us one step closer to a police state and removes one more step in our due process.

Just because it has been ruled legal doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.