Right of Way

 Right of Way

As the state challenges the legality of traffic camera programs, the future of traffic cameras in the Miami Valley is up in the air.

By Kyle Melton

You’re driving along, radio up, sunshine beaming down—a perfect day. Suddenly, the unmistakable red and blue lights of law enforcement appear in your rearview mirror. Just like that, you’re out a sizable chunk of money for a traffic violation. While no reasonable person likes to get a ticket, we are all well aware of this risk every time we get behind the wheel of a car. 

In recent years, however, this scenario changed significantly. With the introduction of traffic cameras throughout the Miami Valley, tickets may now arrive at the home of the motorist, along with the rest of the mail, unsuspecting of any possible wrongdoing and removed from the scene of crime. While the use of traffic cameras may enable law enforcement to better police the roads and maintain public safety, the legality of these programs is currently in question. 

According to the City of Dayton’s website, there are currently 21 red light and speeding cameras at 19 intersections. In some areas, accidents at intersections with cameras have been reduced up to 35 percent, according to the city’s website. The city claims that, “such a decrease saves tax dollars and staff time, since police and fire crews are freed up to handle other calls.” 

With Ohio Senate Bill 342 taking effect this past March 23, however, municipalities all over Ohio were required to modify their traffic camera programs. The law requires automated cameras be accompanied by an officer onsite during their operation and for cities to study traffic problems in an area before an automated camera is installed. Additionally, cities also must alert the public about the presence of any camera by administering a 30-day public education campaign before installation. These measures seek to ensure the public is informed.

In Akron, Columbus, Dayton, Springfield and Toledo, however, the legality of this statute is being challenged in court, as these cities are claiming “home rule.” The Home Rule Amendment in the Ohio Constitution states: “Municipalities 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.” In effect, a local government may override any higher laws in the interest of its community.

On April 3, a request by the state for Montgomery County Common Pleas Court to deny Dayton’s request to postpone enforcement of the new law, Judge Barbara Gorman instead sided with the city. In her decision, Gorman said, “Such a requirement is nothing more than an impermissible limit on a municipality to enforce its civil administrative laws for traffic control.” 

Retired Montgomery County Common Pleas Court judge A.J. Wagner points out the legal considerations about these home rule claims: “As noted in City of Cleveland v. State, 138 Ohio St.3d 232, 5 N.E.3d 644 (Ohio, 2014), these are the items an appeals court must consider when deciding if Dayton or Springfield’s home rule bypass the state law: ‘A state statute takes precedence over a local ordinance when ‘(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.’ In my view, the state law seems to meet all three of these criteria which would knock down the local ordinances, despite home rule claims.”

Additionally, Wagner cites several due process concerns with tickets being issued by camera: “The burden of proof is on the accused, not the city, for determining who was driving the car. You are literally guilty until you prove your innocence. You have no rights. You must pay the fine in order to effectuate an appeal, and if you do appeal, you are limited as to what you can appeal on. The worst is that if you do not pay your fine (which you may not even know about), the city can confiscate your automobile. None of these actions can be taken under criminal law. You will get much more due process if a police officer nabs you.”

In an informal Facebook poll, the question was posed to residents of the Dayton area about their experiences with receiving tickets from traffic cameras. 

“Honestly, I would have no issue with it had there not been so much back and forth on what is legal and what is not,” Emily Mendenhall of Dayton says. “I think until the legality of traffic cameras in Ohio is resolved, Dayton should not be issuing tickets.”

“As I am a strong proponent for always going to court to exercise my right to due process, I found every part of this citation appalling and unconstitutional,” Sarah G. of Dayton says. “Then, there is, of course, the elimination of the right to face your accuser. Your accuser is a machine that this state and many others have proven to be unreliable. The fact that the local government completely ignored and found their way around a state ruling is unbelievable.”

“I got my ticket last month thanks to the Keowee [Street] camera,” Michele Lorenzo of Jamestown, says. “I felt very much like I was living in the novel 1984 with Big Brother watching when I received my ticket.”

While there are legal concerns regarding the legitimacy of this program, Dayton and Springfield maintain they seek only to protect their communities. Their claims are supported by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, whose studies across the country have found that traffic cameras significantly decrease violations and crashes up to 50 percent. These traffic cameras have also provided municipalities with sizable revenue streams. According to a report from the Dayton Daily News in March of this year, traffic cameras brought in $2.5 million during 2014 for the six communities in the Dayton region that employ them. It could be presumed that cities would be hard-pressed to replace this money for their budgets. 

However, traffic cameras are often provided and monitored by a third-party company. In some cases, these companies seek profits over public safety. According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, “The most problematic contracts require cities to share revenue with the camera vendor on a per-ticket basis or through other formulas as a percentage of revenue. In other words, the more tickets a camera system issues, the more profit the vendor collects.” 

It comes as little surprise, then, that on June 19, the Associated Press reported that Karen Finley, former CEO of Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic Systems, pleaded guilty to charges of bribery. This is the very company that provides traffic camera systems for Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus and municipalities in 13 other states. 

While we attempted to speak with a city official regarding traffic cameras in Dayton, with the case still pending, City of Dayton Public Affairs Specialist Bryan Taulbee informed us that the city opted to make no comments at this time. 

As these cases with Dayton and Springfield remain in litigation, tickets continue to be issued by traffic cameras. Both municipalities contend their primary concern is public safety and to ensure the roadways remain safe. While motorists seem to be resentful of an eye in the sky monitoring their activities with anonymity, the laws of the road essentially remain the same.