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  • Ohio Appeals Court Says Speed Trap Town Must Pay Back $3 Million In Unconstitutional Speed Camera Tickets
  • 02/02/2018
  • Contributed by: Moses ( 5 articles in 2018 )
Drivers sent tickets by New Miami, Ohio speed cameras will be getting a refund. The state appeals court has upheld the ruling handed down by the lower court last spring. At stake is $3 million in fines, illegally obtained by the town.
The Ohio Court of Appeals on Monday delivered a heavy blow to New Miami's attempt to block a court-ordered refund of $3,066,523 in speed camera citations. The village insisted that the lower court (view ruling) got it wrong and that the village should not be forced to pay back any amount on the grounds of sovereign immunity. Not so, said the unanimous three-judge panel.

"While it is true that New Miami has the authority to enforce its traffic laws, it must do so in a constitutional manner," Judge Michael E. Powell wrote for the appellate court. "New Miami does not have the authority to do so in an unconstitutional manner."

This is the end of six year legal battle over New Miami's speed cameras. The lower court had problems with the lack of options made available to ticket recipients to challenge speeding tickets. It also had problems with New Miami's cozy relationship with the speed camera company, which provided free cameras in exchange for a percentage of collected fines. This fostered an unhealthy relationship between the two, leading to the town becoming most famous for being a speed trap. The company saddled New Miami with a minimum of 100 operating hours per camera each month. This led to spike in tickets and a healthy thirst for continual cash infusions on the part of New Miami's governance.

The Appeals Court addresses New Miami's last-ditch attempt to salvage the $3 million it obtained unconstitutionally. The town tried to go the "sovereign immunity" route, claiming it could not be held responsible for monetary damages arising from a civil suit. The court explains handing out refunds isn't the same thing as issuing a check for monetary damages. From the order [PDF]:
[P]laintiffs are seeking the recovery of the specific amount of penalties they paid pursuant to the unconstitutional ordinance and that were therefore wrongfully collected by New Miami. That is, Plaintiffs are seeking the return of specific monies that had once been in their possession and so belonged to them "in good conscience," and thus have asserted a claim for the return of the very thing to which the class was allegedly entitled in the first place. Santos, 2004-Ohio-28 at ¶ 13-14. The action seeking restitution by Plaintiffs "is not a civil suit for money damages but rather an action to correct the unjust enrichment of" New Miami. Id. at ¶ 17. As the Ohio Supreme Court plainly held, "A suit that seeks the return of specific funds wrongfully collected or held by the state is brought in equity" and "is consequently not barred by sovereign immunity."

The government also tried to claim the speed camera funds were not unjustly obtained. It argued it had a legal right to impose fines for traffic violations. The court agrees the town can indeed do that, but points out it has to comply with the Constitution when it does.
New Miami claims that this is not a case where Plaintiffs are seeking reimbursement for services rendered or money "wrongfully collected." New Miami asserts that the penalties paid by Plaintiffs were not "wrongfully collected" because New Miami has the authority "to operate traffic programs and collect penalties for violation of traffic laws." Apparently, it is New Miami's contention that because it has legal authority to collect penalties for violation of its traffic laws, Plaintiffs' claim is necessarily for money damages based upon a denial of due process in the collection of those penalties. While it is true that New Miami has the authority to enforce its traffic laws, it must do so in a constitutional manner. New Miami does not have the authority to do so in an unconstitutional manner.

Hopefully, this will be the end of New Miami's run as "the little speed trap that could." It's been told otherwise -- twice. It can't. Not the way it's been doing things. If the town wants to assess fees for traffic violations, fine. But it has to provide an avenue for recipients to challenge tickets. Its cozy relationship with the camera company prevents that. And its contractual obligations pervert the incentives, moving it from public safety to generating revenue.

Download Speed Camera Case (PDF)
Download Speed Camera Case (Text)

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