Individual liberty scored a victory earlier this month when an Ohio judge ordered a village in Butler County, Ohio, to repay its citizens $3 million in fines collected from speeding camera citations.
New Miami Village police used traffic cameras from 2012-2013 to cite residents for speeding, and issued citations to a mind-boggling 45,000 people in 15 months. To illustrate just how excessive that number is, the entire population of New Miami is only 2,249, only a tiny fraction of the number of citations issued in the area.
The town didn't waste any time using the revenue to line its own pockets, upgrading the town's official cars, giving raises to employees, and even going above and beyond to pay out-of-pocket health insurance costs. So when a judge ruled the program was unconstitutional in 2014, the money had already been spent.
The city slashed its budget in 2014 to compensate for the lost revenue, but that wasn't enough for the citizens who had collectively paid $3 million in unconstitutional fines. The speeders filed a class action lawsuit, asserting that they should be paid back the fines that were illegally collected by the town.
Judge Michael Oster agreed with the citizens, ordering the town to pay back the $3 million. "This court has already found council ordinance 1917 as adopted by the village of New Miami to be unconstitutional,” Oster wrote in his decision. "Accordingly, any collection or retention of the monies collected under the ordinance was wrongful. Based upon the aforementioned established Ohio law, this action sub justice is therefore not a civil suit for money damages; but rather, an action to correct the unjust enrichment of the village of New Miami."
Meanwhile, the village of New Miami spent an additional $100,000 defending the lawsuit and challenging the ruling that declared the speeding camera program unconstitutional, an amount that will undoubtedly get passed down to city taxpayers. But the town's attorney insists it was money well spent.
"It is worthwhile, it is an exercise of the police power to preserve safety within the village…,” the town's attorney James Englert said. “The reason that it’s worthwhile pursuing it is the Supreme Court in Ohio in Mendenhall in 2008 found that automated traffic programs, red light and speeding camera programs are Constitutional. In 2014 the Supreme Court held that administrative hearings are Constitutional and within the power of municipalities like New Miami to use to enforce automated traffic procedures. The village thought that it was acting totally within it’s Constitutional statutory authority and it is just defending it’s ability to do that."
The efficacy of camera enforcement — both of the speeding and red light variety — in reducing car crashes and promoting public safety is a hotly debated issue. Some law enforcement officials and experts have flatly admitted that speeding cameras and red light cameras "do not save lives," because drivers are generally unaware of camera presence and thus do not slow down or stop as they would in response to the visual presence of a police officer. Others contend that in certain areas where camera use is heavily advertised, red light cameras have been effective in preventing intersection accidents.
One thing that is not in dispute is that these cameras have been amazingly effective cash cows for the law enforcement agencies that employ them. Red light cameras alone are responsible for millions of dollars in collected fines a year; incredibly, camera manufacturers like Lockheed Martin are allowed to share in the spoils of the tickets generated by their machines. According to the National Motorists Association, many municipalities have entered into contracts actually allowing Lockheed Martin to determine where red light cameras will be located:
Skrum continued, “I find it very revealing that Lockheed Martin, one of the biggest manufacturers of red light cameras in the U.S., has included clauses in their contracts that prohibit city engineers from applying engineering practices that improve compliance and reduce accidents, apparently to maintain the flow of ticket camera revenue. Lockheed Martin specifically prohibits cities, such as San Diego, California, from changing the timing of yellow lights in intersections that host their cameras, even though increasing the yellow light time has proven to dramatically decrease red light violations.
“In Fairfax County, Virginia there has been a 96% decrease in red light violations at the intersection of US50 and Fair Ridge Drive, but only after the yellow light time was increased by 1.5 seconds. And, Lockheed Martin has asked Mesa, Arizona for approval to remove cameras from intersections that no longer generate meaningful revenue. The cause is an increase in the duration of the yellow light time at the intersections. In the typical Lockheed Martin contract, the company doesn’t get paid unless a ticket is issued. At the very least, there is a definite conflict of interest due to the fact that if the intersection has no violators, Lockheed Martin has no profit.
Camera enforcement of speeding and red light violations also raises serious due process and accuracy concerns. As noted by the Cato Institute in 2005:
A recent BBC study of mobile speed cameras revealed significant accuracy problems. One researcher was able to clock a stationary wall at 58 mph. The Australian government has begun paying $26 million back to motorists who were issued tickets by faulty cameras. A Canadian town recently recalled 6,800 tickets issued by cameras. The Washington Times has reported several incidents in which D.C. motorists were ticketed for cars they no longer own or drive, or that are inoperable.
Clearly, speed cameras err. But motorists issued tickets might be surprised to learn that they’re generally considered guilty until proved innocent. It’s up to a car’s owner to prove he wasn’t driving when the ticket was issued, that the camera misread his plates, or that the camera itself is faulty. In many cases, the private companies who run the cameras get a cut of each ticket issued, and appeals of tickets are settled by the company itself, not a judge or traffic court. Camera manufacturers have also been known to train cops on how to testify against appeals, and in some cases have paid officials to advocate the cameras to other cities. That’s an unsettling kind of justice.
It was indeed these exact concerns that led the city of New Miami's program to be declared unconstitutional. But drivers who were victimized by the city's desire for additional funding are still fighting in court almost seven years later to have their money returned.