Justices Hear Case Over State's Law On Traffic Cameras, Which Cities Say Amounts To A Ban

Jan 10, 2017

A two-year old state law that sets rules on traffic cameras went before the Ohio Supreme Court, in a case filed by cities who claim the law actually amounts to a ban on those devices.

More than 20 cities put up cameras to catch drivers running red lights, speeding or committing other traffic violations. A few of those camera programs were repealed by voters, and most other cities shut off their cameras after the law passed, saying it has such severe restrictions it basically outlawed those cameras. The city of Dayton filed the Supreme Court challenge. Dayton’s John Musto said the law requires a police officer with each camera, a three-year traffic study, warning signs to be posted and limits on when tickets can be issued – but sets no limits or conditions on residents. And he told the justices that’s unconstitutional.  “The home rule amendment protects municipal home rule because it requires that any limitation of municipal police power is only incidental to a general state police regulation that regulates conduct of citizens.”

Musto said that this kind of state law conflicts with the home rule provision, which allows local communities certain self-governing powers. “The power is provided directly by the constitution, and as this Court has repeatedly held, the power may not be withdrawn by the General Assembly,” Musto said.

But the state has said it has the authority to set rules for the cities’ cameras, and that this law is just a series of regulations and not an all-out ban. State solicitor Eric Murphy argued for the law. “The state requires municipalities to follow the manual of uniform traffic control devices – does not allow them to use blue stop signs – the same way the state regulates the police. If they are correct, police are no different than traffic cameras. Police’s job, like traffic camera’s job, is to enforce the law,” Murphy said.

But Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor was concerned that, unlike with a typical traffic stop, a driver doesn’t know he’s been caught committing a traffic violation until the ticket comes in the mail. Murphy said that’s actually a strength of the law. “It’s more efficient. They don’t have to worry about, they can ticket more folks through the camera system rather than stopping each individual,” Murphy said. “From the General Assembly’s perspective, this was a good compromise given the competing interests in this area.”

And Murphy argued that, like the state law overriding or pre-empting local ordinances on guns, this measure was needed. “There’s a concern with uniformity, with wanting to have people who are traveling throughout the state know what the procedures are if they are ever ticketed with traffic cameras.”

But Dayton’s Musto said that the rules the state set are unfair and unnecessary – and he cited the three-year traffic study that’s required in the camera program law: “It’s just an additional hurdle that was put on this program to eliminate photo enforcement, which is what has actually happened thus far – which has made the streets of Dayton less safe.”

Musto brought out stats that he said show traffic cameras increase public safety, which the state does not dispute. But lawmakers who voted for the law said they were also concerned about the revenue raised by the cameras, which totaled more than $16 million dollars the year before the law passed.