By Sarah Lehr
and Joe Gorman
Mahoning Valley communities say they have no immediate plans to change their use of speed cameras, despite an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that grants broader authority to local governments to use the devices.
The court Wednesday upheld cities’ use of traffic- camera enforcement for a third time, striking down as unconstitutional legislative restrictions that included requiring a police officer to be present.
The ruling was 5-2 in support of Dayton’s challenge of provisions in a state law that took effect in 2015. The city said it improperly limited local control and undercut camera enforcement that makes cities safer by reducing red-light running and speeding.
Dayton and other cities including Toledo and Springfield, said the law’s restrictions made traffic cameras cost-prohibitive.
The court also ruled as illegal requirements that an officer be present when cameras were being used, that there must be a lengthy safety study and public information campaign before cameras are used, and that drivers could be only ticketed if they exceeded the posted limit by certain amounts.
A majority opinion written by Justice Patrick Fischer found those three restrictions “unconstitutionally [limit] the municipality’s home-rule authority without serving an overriding state interest.”
Ohio has been a battleground for years in the debate over camera enforcement. Critics say cities use them to boost revenues while violating motorists’ rights. Supporters say they increase safety and free up police for other crime fighting. The state’s highest court has twice previously ruled for cities using cameras.
Ohio Attorney General spokesman Dan Tierney said the case couldn’t be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court because it involved a solely state law.
Youngstown Police Chief Robin Lees said the ruling will not affect his department’s use of speed cameras, which are operated by a uniformed officer.
Lees said the cameras the city uses, provided by a Maryland firm, Optotraffic, have to be manually operated, so the ruling would not apply to the cameras in use.
Lees said he wants the cameras operated by a uniformed officer because it lends a sense of “fair play” to the process.
“We don’t plan on dealing with fixed cameras despite the recent Supreme Court decision,” Lees said.
Lees said the cameras are working in the city, reducing the number of accidents on Interstate 680.
Police focus on school zones and highways, concentrating on I-680 between South Avenue and Meridian Road, where the speed limit is 50 mph.
Current figures were not available Wednesday, but as of the end of February, 17,505 citations had been issued with 11,363 people paying the civil fines. That’s a collection rate of 65 percent. Total fines paid as of that date were $1,416,863, with the city receiving $920,961 of that total. The city keeps 65 percent of the fees. Optotraffic gets 35 percent.
Speeders face civil penalties of $100 for driving up to 12 mph over the speed limit, $125 for 14 to 19 mph over the limit, and $150 for those driving at least 20 mph over the limit.
Liberty Township has been using a manned speed camera since summer 2016. It’s unclear whether the Ohio Supreme Court ruling will apply only to cities, which have broader authority, or whether it extends also to villages and townships.
Trustee Jodi Stoyak said she is satisfied with using only manned cameras. An advantage, she said, is that officers can use their powers of observation.
An officer has discretion about whether to pull someone over when using the speed cameras operated in Liberty, Youngstown and Girard. Typically, however, the officer stays on the side of the road without pulling anyone over and the driver learns of the ticket later via a civil citation in the mail.
There are no immediate plans to change how Liberty uses speed cameras. Stoyak said she would defer to the opinion of Police Chief Richard Tisone, who was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Trustees Chairman Stanley Nudell said he’s pleased with the township’s current camera use and would oppose adopting unmanned cameras.
“We’re doing it for safety reasons, we’re not doing it to gouge people for money,” Nudell said.
The township uses its camera on state Route 11, state Route 193, state Route 304 and a Shady Road school zone. Township police do not use the camera on Interstate 80 within the township because the township law director has advised officials state law does not grant township police the authority to enforce traffic violations on interstates.
Under the township’s contract with Optotraffic, the township collects 65 percent of fine revenue, and the company collects 35 percent.
Girard uses its speed camera throughout the city, including on I-80. The city has a contract with Blue Line Solutions of Athens, Tenn., which allows the city to collect 60 percent of fine revenue and receive compensation from the company for police overtime. Since adopting the camera in summer 2016, the city has collected more than $1.1 million, Girard Mayor James Melfi said. That money funded the purchase of three police cruisers and more than $500,000 in street paving, the mayor said.
Melfi said he is satisfied with the city’s manned camera, as it allows police officers to use their judgment and potentially pull over speeders. The mayor said he wouldn’t necessarily rule out adopting unmanned cameras, however, if city council were to vote in favor of them.
Girard previously operated an unmanned red-light camera, though the city was forced to abandon that camera in 2006 after a successful lawsuit by former Girard Councilman Dan Moadus.
Contributor: Associated Press