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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ohio Supreme Court Hears Red-Light Camera Challenge

Columbus, Ohio- Whether those pesky traffic camera photos are even worth the paper they are printed on is now up to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The high court Tuesday heard arguments in an Akron case that is certain to affect Cleveland and every other community that in recent years has turned to the so-called red-light cameras to enforce road rules and raise revenue.

The case involves an Akron woman who received a photo citation and challenged whether the city had a right to issue her a speeding ticket as a civil offense even though the violation, by state law, is a criminal act.
In Mendenhall v. Akron, the court will answer whether Ohio's constitutional home-rule provision allows cities to assess a civil penalty for something deemed by state law to be a criminal act.

"The statute allows local ordinances that mirror the state laws; what it does not allow is a change in the type of law . . . moving it from a criminal to a civil offense," argued attorney Warren Mendenhall, who happens to be the husband of plaintiff Kelly Mendenhall.

Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton noted that Mendenhall seemed to suggest the plaintiff should have been dealt with more harshly as a criminal offender.

"I would prefer getting charged with the civil" penalty, Stratton said.

Mendenhall suggested that the city's camera program is illegal and because no officer was present, his wife shouldn't have been ticketed at all - criminally or civilly.

Mendenhall notes that the home-rule provision prohibits cities from making local rules that conflict with the state's general laws.

Stephen Fallis, assistant law director for the city of Akron, said nothing in state law prevents local governments from establishing a law to work in concert with a state statute.

"It is still against the law to speed in the city of Akron," Fallis said. "It is still against the law to run a red light in Columbus and Cleveland and Toledo and Dayton and Springfield" - other cities with camera programs.

"We are complementing criminal law," Fallis said.

He argued that because photo traffic enforcement is relatively new and not in the state law, home rule allows cities to choose what penalties to apply.

Pursuing the cases civilly allows cities to make money by assessing fines and drivers to avoid points on their records.

Drivers across the state have grown irate with the automated traffic cameras, often stunned they had been caught weeks earlier. State lawmakers have tried to curb the effectiveness of the cameras. Cities contend the cameras improve safety.

Mendenhall had sued the city in local court, but the city and the company operating its cameras moved the case to federal court.

But before proceeding further, a federal judge asked the Ohio Supreme Court to first determine whether the camera program is legal.

By Plain Dealer Reporter Reginald Fields, 7/19/07


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