Speed cameras: How a ruling in one Ohio village could put money back in drivers' wallets

Have you ever been caught in a speed camera trap and paid up? Rarely do you have the opportunity to get your money back, but that may be happening soon for some Ohio drivers -- to the tune of millions.

Everyone knows we have speed cameras clicking away in Northeast Ohio, but now all eyes are on a small village near Cincinnati that may change how speeders are caught across the state.

Stationary speed cameras set up in New Miami in Butler County had been snapping pictures of what the village claimed were speeders. The village issued more than 30,000 citations, collecting $3 million over 15 months.

"There are, obviously, a lot of people violating that law," said James Englert, the attorney for the village of New Miami, who says the cameras exist to protect public safety.

But Mike Allen, an attorney for plaintiffs challenging their tickets, says, "It was nothing more than just a bald-faced cash grab.”

Allen says there was no meaningful due process to contest these citations, and judges have sided with the drivers, saying New Miami's citation hearings were flawed.

Complaint Filed Against New Miami 

Part of the plaintiffs' argument includes a judge's ruling on a similar case out of Elmwood Place in Hamilton County. The judge wrote that Elwood's speed camera hearings were "nothing more than a sham" and a "high-tech game of 3 card monty" that "motorists can't win."

Elmwood Place Decision 

Judges in the New Miami case, so far, say the village has to pay drivers back. It’s money the village of 2,600 people doesn't have. State audits show what the village collected in general fines, licenses and permits before the cameras. In 2009 and 2011 those totals were in the $30,000-$50,000 range. During the camera operations in 2013, the total was $1.4 million. After the cameras came down, the totals were back around the $40,000 area in 2015.

"They saw a hole in their budget, and they decided to fill that hole in their budget by contracting with an out-of-state company to come and set up a bunch of speed cameras,” said Joshua Engel, who is another attorney representing the drivers.

New Miami has painted itself into a bit of a corner and now is fighting the judges' decisions. It’s saying the village should not have to pay because of sovereign immunity.

"It's a long-standing doctrine saying that the government is immune for certain kinds of functions," said Englert.

The next step for that claim could be the Ohio Supreme Court, but if justices decline to hear it, the final damages will be set and those millions could be paid out to drivers.

What does this mean for Northeast Ohio? The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports 16 municipalities operate speed cameras in Ohio, including Akron, East Cleveland, Linndale, Newburgh Heights and Parma.

Some Ohio House reps have voiced their concerns. A proposed law that passed the house and is now in the Senate aims to discourage using speed cameras to just make money. It says municipalities would have to report what they make from speed camera fines, then Ohio would subtract dollar-for-dollar that amount from state funding that goes to those towns.

"When you look at it from how are we going to most efficiently raise money versus how are we going to accomplish a public safety goal, you end up with a different outcome," said Engel.

What if New Miami loses its case?

"If New Miami has to pay up $3 million, it would make those other municipalities think before they decide to implement a speed camera program again,” said Allen.

The cameras have drivers thinking.

"My mom had like three of them in one week,” said Amanda Brooks, who lives near New Miami. "Some people can't afford that."

"I think it was a money-grab,” said New Miami resident Ethan Allen. “New Miami doesn't have nearly the revenue that it did have."

Lawyers are still arguing.

"We do like how things look and the developing posture of the law,” Englert.

"We're not going anywhere and we'd be willing to fight the case again,” said Allen.

No word yet from the Ohio Supreme Court on whether or not it will hear the New Miami case.

The village has spent more than $300,000 in attorneys’ fees to fight the case.

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