Last week, the Supreme Court of Ohio heard oral arguments regarding the constitutionality of one of Ohio’s most controversial laws – automated traffic camera citations.
The case, entitled City of Toledo, et al. v. Bradley L. Walker, arises from a Toledo city ordinance. In 2003, the City of Toledo contracted with RedFlex traffic Systems, Inc. to provide a system of automated cameras throughout the city that would be synchronized with traffic lights to take pictures of automobiles that entered an intersection after the traffic light turned red. Speed measuring devices were added later to identify drivers violating the applicable speed limits. Pursuant to the ordinance, violators caught on camera are sent a civil “notice of liability.” The violator then has three options: (1) pay the fine; (2) challenge the fine in an administrative hearing; or (3) ignore the fine, after which the City will treat the notice as enforceable debt and will seek to enforce collection. This could mean garnishing the violator’s wages or impounding the violator’s vehicle until the debt is paid.
The plaintiff, Bradley Walker, was the recipient of one of these notices of “civil penalty,” which resulted in him being forced to pay a $120 fine. He brought suit in February 2011 to challenge the constitutionality of the ticket. However, unlike many others before him who tried and failed to challenge the ticket on the basis of their constitutional right to confrontation, Mr. Walker put the system on trial. Mr. Walker argued that the system of enforcement created by the City of Toledo usurped the jurisdiction of the Toledo Municipal Court by diverting challenges to the violation notices to an administrative hearing officer set up within the police department. The trial court dismissed the case for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, but the 6th District Court of Appeals reversed the decision and found in favor of Mr. Walker. The City appealed. On Wednesday June 11, 2014, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the issue.
The City of Toledo and RedFlex argued that the system of enforcement was well within the City’s constitutional powers of self-governance and home rule. The City argued that the civil penalties created by the camera system do not divest the municipal court of its jurisdiction, but rather, supplement the existing criminal traffic enforcement with an administrative civil penalty. Thus the subject ordinance was comparable to dozens of other ordinances that set up administrative boards with quasi-judicial authority to determine matters of local controversy such as taxi appeal boards, zoning boards and public health boards. To accept Mr. Walker’s position, the City argued, would have wide spread ramifications and untold consequences on a municipality’s constitutional right to self-govern. In response, Mr. Walker’s attorney argued that “home rule” or “self-governance” does not permit a local government to sidestep the judicial system. Ohio Constitution, Article IV, Section 1, vests judicial power to the courts. Municipal courts are established by the General Assembly pursuant to statute. These same statutes give the municipal court the sole power to adjudicate violations of moving traffic laws. Mr. Walker’s attorney specifically noted that the statute does not distinguish between civil and criminal violations in this regard. Thus, Toledo’s system which enforces its “civil penalties” through an administrative board is improperly divesting the municipal court of jurisdiction and unconstitutional as a matter of law. During oral arguments, Justices O’Neill and Pfeifer appeared sympathetic to Mr. Walker’s arguments, with Justice O’Neill even referring to the City’s description of the traffic violations as “civil” matters a “legal fantasy.” Meanwhile, Justices Lanzinger, French and O’Connor appeared to be much more supportive of the City’s legal interpretation. This case will no doubt be a hot topic of discussion in legal circles over the next few weeks as several Ohio cities including Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton, have similar systems in place. Should the Court rule against the City of Toledo, drivers in these cities can expect rapid changes to the manner in which their traffic laws are enforced. Notably, Cleveland’s traffic system faces a nearly identical challenge in the case Jodka v. City of Cleveland for which the City is currently seeking Supreme Court review. An official ruling is not expected for several months. In the meantime, drive safely. Link to oral argument: http://www.ohiochannel.org/MediaLibrary/Media.aspx?fileId=143961