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Restrictions to Use of Red-Light Cameras Ruled Unconstitutional

Image of a red-light and speed camera

Three major restrictions on the use of red-light cameras to enforce traffic violations were ruled unconstitutional.

Image of a red-light and speed camera

Three major restrictions on the use of red-light cameras to enforce traffic violations were ruled unconstitutional.

Three of the many provisions of a 2015 state law regulating the use of red-light and speed cameras are unconstitutional because they infringe upon municipal authority without serving an overriding state interest, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 5-2 judgment, the Court agreed with the city of Dayton’s constitutional challenge to parts of Senate Bill 342, which took effect more than two years ago.

In the lead opinion written by Justice Patrick F. Fischer, the Court found the regulations were not “general laws” that apply evenly throughout the state but instead were regulations that improperly “limit legislative power of a municipal corporation” to set police, sanitary or similar regulations.

Justice Fischer’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Fifth District Court of Appeals Judge Craig R. Baldwin, sitting on assignment for Justice Terrence O’Donnell.

Justice Judith L. French wrote a concurring opinion, also finding the laws unconstitutional, but on different grounds than Justice Fischer. Justice Sharon L. Kennedy joined Justice French in ruling the challenged laws violate the Ohio Constitution’s Home Rule Amendment because they fail to “prescribe a rule of conduct upon citizens generally.”

In March 2015, laws adopted by the General Assembly took effect regulating local authorities’ use of automated traffic-enforcement programs. Citing the home rule amendment, Dayton and other cities asked the Court to strike down some requirements in the new law, including a rule that a police officer be present at the location of each traffic camera.

Both Justices Fischer and French cited the Supreme Court’s 2002 Canton v. State opinion, where the Court developed a four-pronged test to determine whether a law violates home rule.

The Court reinstated the trial court’s permanent injunction preventing the provisions from taking effect.

In separate dissenting opinions, Justices R. Patrick DeWine and William M. O’Neill questioned the validity of the Canton test, and Justice DeWine argued the Court has so inconsistently applied Canton that it does not provide any clear guidance to state and local policymakers.

Dayton Objects to Restrictions
Dayton did not challenge all of S.B. 342, but only three sections that it believed did not qualify as general laws under Article XVIII, Section 3, of the Ohio Constitutions, which grants home-rule powers. Dayton filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court challenging R.C. 4511.093(B)(1), which requires a law enforcement officer be present; R.C. 4511.0912, which prohibits a fine to a driver caught speeding by a traffic camera unless the driver exceeded the speed limit by 6 miles per hour or more in a school or park zone, or by 10 mph in other areas; and R.C. 4511.095, which directs a municipality to perform a safety study and conduct a public information campaign prior to using a camera.

In 2002, Dayton permitted its police department to use traffic cameras to civilly enforce red-light violations with the intent to conserve police resources and reduce traffic violations and accidents. Prior to the installation of the cameras, the city conducted studies to identify intersections with high numbers of traffic accidents. The introduction of the cameras led to a decrease in violation-related accidents and, in 2010, Dayton amended city law to use traffic cameras to reduce speeding violations.

Under the Dayton program, the cameras take still photos and video of vehicles. An officer reviews the camera images to confirm a traffic violation, and issues a “notice of liability” to the vehicle owner. The city ordinance requires the notice to contain pertinent information about the violation and list the amount of civil penalty imposed. The vehicle owner has 30 days to appeal, and an independent hearing officer reviews the appeal.

State Restrictions Enacted
S.B. 342 modified R.C. Chapter 4511 and authorized municipal corporations, counties, and townships to use photo-monitoring devices for traffic-law violations only if they followed certain conditions and regulations. In addition to imposing procedures that local authorities must follow, S.B. 342 also established procedures for citizens and entities receiving traffic-camera violations, giving them opportunities to challenge tickets. The law included new regulations for insurance companies, barring them for using traffic camera violations when establishing rates, and for camera manufacturers, mandating that they must provide maintenance records to local governments and annually attest to the accuracy of the devices.

Before the new law took effect, Dayton asked the common pleas court to declare the “officer present,” “speeding leeway,” and “study and notice” provisions unconstitutional, and bar them from taking effect. The trial court sided with the city, finding that the law violated the third and fourth prongs of the Canton test. The state appealed to the Second District Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court’s opinion. Dayton appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Home-Rule Powers Analyzed
Ohioans adopted Article XVIII, Section 3 in 1912. It provides that “[m]unicipalities shall have authority to exercise all powers of local self-government and to adopt and enforce within their limits such local police, sanitary and other similar regulations, as are not in conflict with general laws.” The Court explained a city law must yield to a state law if “(1) the ordinance is an exercise of the police power, rather than of local self-government, (2) the statute is a general law, and (3) the ordinance is in conflict with the statute.”

Dayton’s law is an exercise of police power, and the Court noted that both the state and city agreed the local law conflicts with the state law. Justice Fischer explained that the sole issue is whether the contested provisions qualify as general laws.

Under the Canton test, for a state law to be a general law it must “(1) be part of a statewide and comprehensive legislative enactment, (2) apply to all parts of the state alike and operate uniformly throughout the state, (3) set forth police, sanitary, or similar regulations, rather than purport only to grant or limit legislative power of a municipal corporation to set forth police, sanitary, or similar regulations, and (4) prescribe a rule of conduct upon citizens generally.”

In the lead opinion, Justice Fischer wrote that the contested provisions fail the third prong of the test and are unconstitutional. Justice Fischer noted that while he and two others struck down the law based on the third prong, the laws also may be unconstitutional under the fourth prong, as asserted by Justice French.

Justice Fischer cited a 1982 Ohio Supreme Court decision (Clermont Environmental Reclamation Co. v. Wiederhold) and stated that “‘a statute which prohibits the exercise by a municipality of its home rule powers without such statute serving an overriding statewide interest would directly contravene the constitutional grant of municipal power.’” He noted that under the Court’s precedent, as long as a state law serves an overriding state interest regarding police, sanitary and similar regulations, the third prong of the Canton test is met even if it limits the authority of municipalities.

Officer-Present Provision Examined
When reversing the trial court, the Second District agreed with the state that the entire law, all of S.B. 342, must be examined to determine if there is an overriding state interest. The Supreme Court, however, agreed with the trial court— that the provisions can be examined individually.

R.C. 4511.093(B)(1) states that “[a] local authority shall use a traffic law photo-monitoring device to detect and enforce traffic law violations only if a law enforcement officer is present at the location of the device at all times during the operation of the device.”

The state contended the law has an overriding state interest because it represents a compromise by not placing an outright ban on traffic cameras, but establishing them as “secondary enforcement tools” so that the officers do not have to stop every violator.

The Court ruled the officer’s presence at the traffic camera contradicts the purpose of the traffic camera, which is to conserve police resources, and it noted the law does not require the officer to witness the violation. That means the camera is the primary enforcement tool, not the secondary tool, the opinion stated.

Speed-Leeway Provision Acts as Increase in Speed Limit
R.C. 4511.0912 prohibits a ticket that relied on a traffic camera unless the driver was caught in excess of 6 mph or more in a school or park zone, or 10 mph elsewhere. The Court stated this “dictates how municipalities must enforce speed limits within their territories, thus limiting their legislative power.”

The state argued the overriding interest is that the law accounts for errors in a driver’s speedometer or a traffic camera’s measuring device. The lead opinion stated that argument contradicts the contention that the cameras are secondary to an officer’s observation of speeding. It also operates “as a de facto increase in speed limits in the limited areas covered by a traffic camera,” the Court noted.

Study-and-Notice Provision Does Not Require Use of Study
R.C. 4511.095 requires local authorities to (1) conduct a safety study prior to placing a photo-monitoring device at a location, (2) conduct a public-information campaign about the use of traffic-monitoring devices, (3) inform the public through a local newspaper prior to installing a photo-monitoring device, and (4) once a device is installed, observe a 30-day warning period before issuing a violation.

The Court wrote that the law contains no requirement that the placement of traffic cameras be instructed by or connected to the results of the traffic study, and the law does not direct that the devices be placed in spots where authorities have traffic concerns.

“Moreover, the public-information campaign, 30-day warning period, and requirement to publish in a local newspaper are of limited scope and duration. The public traveling through municipalities includes motorists who are not members of the local community targeted by the public-information campaign and local-publication requirement. Thus, the statute’s requirements do not serve the purpose of ensuring that the public traveling in the area has notice,” the lead opinion stated.

Canton Test Applied to Specific Facts
In concluding the laws are unconstitutional, Justice Fischer wrote that neither the city nor state contested the continuing validity of the Canton test and that the test has been applied in numerous cases in the nearly 15 years since it was announced. He added that each home-rule case involves unique facts. “The fact that our conclusions in these fact-intensive cases may vary does not mean that we are being inconsistent or that the Canton test is unworkable but rather that varying facts applied to varying statutes compel varying outcomes,” he concluded.

Laws Only Limit Municipal Enforcement, Concurrence Finds
In her concurring opinion, Justice French wrote the Court does not have to determine the overriding state interest in a law if it focuses on the fourth prong on the Canton test, which asks if the law prescribes a rule of general conduct for citizens. She noted that nothing in the three challenged provisions directs the conduct of citizens with respect to operating a motor vehicle.

“Driving in excess of the speed limit and running a red light are violations of the law, whether or not a traffic camera exists to record the violation and whether or not a law-enforcement officer has authority to issue a citation. The contested provisions are phrased in terms of what a local authority shall or shall not do. They apply not to citizens but to municipalities,” she wrote.

Justice French asserted that looking at S.B. 342 as a whole would not lead to a different conclusion because the bulk of it establishes limits on local authority.

Dissents Find Law Constitutional
In his dissent, Justice O’Neill stated he joined Justice DeWine’s “well-reasoned” dissent and noted that the new law promotes the uniform application of traffic laws, similar to the requirement that all stop signs must be red.

“Here, metaphorically speaking, the city of Dayton seems to prefer blue stop signs, and it suggests that forcing a city to have red stop signs violates the Ohio Constitution,” he wrote. “Regulating the use of traffic cameras throughout the state is the same as regulating traffic signage and speed limits.”

Justice DeWine wrote that the splintered majority’s result “seems to have everything to do with the policy preferences of the majority and nothing to do with the language of the Home Rule Amendment.” DeWine urged the court to abandon the judicially created Canton test, and instead apply the plain language of the Ohio Constitution.

He wrote that the plurality took on a role more properly suited to the legislature in focusing on whether they believed the individual provisions served an overriding state interest:

“One might think that a legislature comprising 132 members, elected on a proportional basis from across Ohio, is far better equipped to determine what is in the state’s interest than seven members of the Ohio Supreme Court. But today, the plurality in essence says we know what is in the state’s interest better than those 132 representatives of the people do. And if we don’t think a law is a good idea, then it must not be a general law, and we can strike it down.”

Justice DeWine also addressed the concurring opinion, writing that it applied the fourth prong in a way that was at odds with other cases applying the Canton test.

He maintained that because of the court’s inconsistent home rule jurisprudence “neither cities nor the legislature can say with any particular degree of certainty—on any particular day—who can do what.” He argued that the Court should abandon the Canton test and instead apply the plain language of the Home Rule Amendment to the Ohio Constitution as it was understood at the time of its adoption. In determining whether a state legislative enactment is a general law, a reviewing court should ask, “Does the statute have statewide reach and does it treat the objects of the law equally?” Applying that standard, he concluded that the provisions are all general laws, and because the city and state agree that their laws are in conflict, the state law must be followed.

2015-1549. Dayton v. State, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-6909.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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