CINCINNATI – An Ohio judge rebuffed an argument Thursday that traffic cameras make law enforcement more efficient, stating sharply that violating motorists' rights isn't the American way.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman cited authoritarian regimes such as Cuba and North Korea as expedient, while saying the U.S. democratic system "can be messy."
"But it's a nice mess to have," Ruehlman said.
The Cincinnati-area village of Elmwood Place wants the judge, who in March ordered a halt to its camera use, to rule against motorists who are seeking nearly $1.8 million in refunds of speeding fines and fees. Attorneys for the motorists say Ruehlman should order the refunds without a trial, since he has already compared the speed cameras to a rigged card game.
Ruehlman said he will issue his decision Jan. 23.
Attorney Judd Uhl contended for Elmwood Place that camera enforcement can make the community safer by allowing police to focus on violent crimes and drugs and have more presence on the streets.
"Why not free them up to do something else?" Uhl said. "Don't make them sit there in the cruisers."
Attorneys for the motorists argued that the cameras violated constitutional rights to due process, giving drivers little chance to challenge the camera-generated citations. They also said the village didn't give proper notice that the camera enforcement was starting, resulting in thousands of speeding citations within the first month in a village of 2,200 people.
Uhl said speeders rarely win challenges to tickets handed out by police, and that drivers can avoid tickets by going the speed limit. He also said camera enforcement has been increasingly used in communities across Ohio and the country, and has been upheld by other courts.
"This is the 21st Century," Uhl said.
But Mike Allen, attorney for the drivers, said there is a growing groundswell against camera enforcement, including in Ohio, where legislators are considering a bill for a statewide ban.
Allen said the judge's March order, which called the camera system a scam and a con game, was "strong language, but accurate language."
He said many of those getting the $105 tickets were people on fixed incomes, single mothers and others whose household budgets were hit hard. Ruehlman has said the original 2012 lawsuit filed by Allen can be expanded to all drivers who got tickets before he halted the camera enforcement.
Elmwood Place said the judge should wait until after its appeals of his earlier rulings are completed, and until after the Ohio Supreme Court rules in a pending case over camera enforcement in Toledo. The village also said complicating an order for Elmwood Place to pay refunds is that 40 percent of the revenues went to a Lanham, Md.-based company, Optotraffic, which owned and operated the cameras.
The Elmwood Place case helped spur new lawsuits against cameras in the nearby village of New Miami and in the northern Ohio village of Lucas, and has drawn the attention of national opponents of camera enforcement.