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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Appeals Court Ruling Denying Speed Camera Ticket Refunds Stands

The Village of New Miami will not have to refund $3 million to motorists who received camera-generated speeding tickets, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a 4-3 decision not to decide the case, the Supreme Court let stand the Twelfth District Court of Appeals’ October 2020 decision overturning a Butler County trial court ruling in favor of the drivers. The trial court found the village’s process for recipients to contest the speeding tickets violated their constitutional rights.

The Supreme Court heard the vehicle owners’ challenge to the New Miami automated speed enforcement program (ASEP) during oral arguments on Jan. 26. Today the Court determined the case was improvidently accepted.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, and Melody J. Stewart ruled the case should not have been considered.

In a written dissenting opinion, Justice R. Patrick DeWine described New Miami’s ASEP as a “classic speed trap,” and stated the case presented an important question about the process that is due before the government may find citizens civilly liable and impose fines.

“A decision by this court would provide the benefit of a resolution to the live controversy in front of us as to whether the plaintiffs are entitled to a refund of their traffic fines,” he wrote. “But more importantly, by reaching a decision on the merits, we could answer the important question whether a government may deprive citizens of property through an administrative scheme that provides as little procedural protection as this one.”

Justices Michael P. Donnelly and Jennifer Brunner joined Justice DeWine’s dissent.

Nearly Decade-Long Disputes Reached Supreme Court
New Miami Village Council passed an ordinance in July 2012 to implement the ASEP and contracted with OptoTraffic of Maryland to install and administer the program. The automatic cameras and speed detectors were set to issue a “notice of liability” to the owner of any vehicle photographed as traveling above 46 mph on a section of State Route 127 where the posted speed limit was 35 mph.

Over the course of 20 months, more than 31,000 notices were sent to vehicle owners, who could pay the $95 fine or contest the violation through an administrative hearing conducted by the village. The contract with OptoTraffic allowed the company to keep 40% of the fines collected. During the 20 months of operation, about $3 million in fines were paid, of which about $1.8 million went to the village and $1.2 million to OptoTraffic.

In 2013, a group of ticketed motorists filed a class-action lawsuit in Butler County Common Pleas Court seeking to declare New Miami’s ASEP unconstitutional and requesting refunds of the citations paid. In 2014, the trial court granted an injunction that stopped the village from using the ASEP in March 2014 and permitted the motorists’ case to move forward.

The village never resumed the ASEP after the trial court blocked its operation in 2014. However, the village contested the attempts by the ticket recipients to obtain refunds. In October 2020, the Twelfth District raised concerns about the fairness of New Miami’s administrative hearing process, but the court ultimately ruled that the vehicle owners failed to prove the appeals procedure violated their due process rights. The Twelfth District reversed the trial court’s ruling.

The Supreme Court accepted the vehicle owners’ challenge before dismissing the case.

Important Issue of Statewide Concern Remains, Dissent Maintained
In his dissent, Justice DeWine argued that the Court should consider the case on the merits to address the level of procedural protections citizens have when the government uses an administrative process to impose civil sanctions.  

In New Miami’s administrative proceeding, “[a]n owner who requested a hearing started with the odds against him and was given few tools to change those odds,” the dissent stated.

Under the New Miami ordinance, the village established a prima facie case of a violation by submitting the notice of liability at the hearing. The vehicle owners argued they had no meaningful opportunity to rebut the village’s case because the hearing rules did not allow them to challenge whether OptoTraffic’s cameras were working properly. The hearings did not give the owners the right to compel witness testimony, which meant the owners could not subpoena the person who calibrated the speed-enforcement camera or created the notice of liability, the dissent stated.

New Miami maintained that it was immaterial that there was no right to subpoena or cross-examine witnesses or conduct discovery because anyone who was unsuccessful in the administrative proceeding could file an appeal under R.C. Chapter 2506. The state law allows the tickets to be appealed to common pleas court, where the ticket recipients have the right to compel witnesses’ attendance in court and to cross-examine them, the opinion noted.

“But one has to wonder about that proposition: if an administrative proceeding assessed liability through a game of rock-paper-scissors, would all be well as long as there was a right to appeal?” the dissent asked.

The dissent questioned whether a “rational person would actually appeal” because appealing a $95 fine to common pleas court would require the payment of a $285 filing fee.

The opinion noted that as the class-action lawsuit was pending, the Generally Assembly enacted R.C. 1901.20(A)(1), giving municipal courts exclusive jurisdiction over civil actions regarding traffic laws. The new law effectively ended all administrative hearings on automated speeding tickets and red-light traffic violations operated by cities and villages across the state.

“But nothing prevents Ohio’s municipalities from employing administrative schemes like New Miami’s in other areas of the law,” the dissent noted.

The case presented an important issue that deserves the Court’s attention, the dissent concluded.

2021-0151. Barrow v. New Miami, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-423.

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