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Judge orders Ohio village's speed cameras seized, fines reimbursed

ohiotrafficcam.jpg

Feb. 22, 2013: Shown here is a red-light camera in downtown Washington, D.C.FoxNews.com

A judge on Thursday found a southwest Ohio village in contempt of court, saying it violated his order against using traffic cameras to catch speeders.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman also ordered the sheriff’s department to confiscate the cameras in Elmwood Place.

He ordered the village and its camera vendor to reimburse all speeding fines collected since his March 7 ruling, knocking down a village ordinance that allowed the camera use, starting last September.

“Any money collected after my ruling is to be returned,” Judge Ruehlman said.

To make sure the equipment doesn’t run anymore in the meantime, he said, it will be seized and the village will have to pay any costs for it being taken down and stored. His written order also said the village was liable for the plaintiffs’ legal fees, to be tallied.

The cameras were taken down by Thursday night, said Holly Calhoun, who manages the Elmwood Quick Mart and had advocated for their removal.

Calls seeking comment from Elmwood Place’s police chief and the village’s attorney weren’t returned Thursday.

The village of about 2,200 people neighboring Cincinnati has become a focal point for a debate common across the country about using traffic cameras.

Thousands of people got ticketed within a few months, leading to the lawsuit. The village appealed Judge Ruehlman’s earlier injunction and has said it stopped issuing citations in the aftermath of his ruling.

But the judge found that $48,000 had been collected in fines after March 7 and ordered that money returned by the village and its vendor, Maryland-based Optotraffic.

The company is one of several that provide and operate traffic cameras to municipalities throughout the country in return for a percentage of revenues — in Elmwood’s case, 40 percent.

The police chief said cameras were used for a study of speeding after the injunction, and village officials said they were turned on at times to keep them in good operating condition pending the outcome of their appeal.

But some citations apparently were sent by the vendor in the first weeks after the injunction, according to court testimony, and the chief told people they didn’t have to pay them.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Mike Allen, an attorney who sued the village over the tickets. “They violated Judge Ruehlman’s order that the cameras be shut down.”

Optotraffic didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Allen filed suit against Elmwood Place last year on behalf of 10 people, including business owners who said they were losing customers because of the speed-ticket blitz.

He is seeking to have the lawsuit expanded to class-action, which could mean thousands of people seeking repayment of fines totaling an estimated $1.5 million.

Judge Ruehlman’s contempt order came one day after the Ohio House passed legislation that would ban using cameras for traffic enforcement in the state. The bill moves to the Senate for consideration.

Village officials say the cameras were meant to curtail a dangerous speeding problem on busy roads that connect with I-75 and major employers.

Critics said that at $105 a citation, they were meant to raise revenue.

The village had tried unsuccessfully to have Judge Ruehlman removed from the case. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected arguments that the judge showed he was biased with his sharp wording, such as calling the camera use a “scam” and “sham” and comparing it to a con artist’s card game.