Toledo can continue using red light cameras with existing civil penalty process, rules Ohio Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of Ohio issued an opinion today that upholds Toledo's system of penalties for traffic violations caught by the city's red light traffic cameras. According to the opinion, in 2008 Toledo enacted a municipal code provision that permitted their traffic camera system to assess civil penalties on drivers who are caught speeding or running red lights. The system consists of both a sensor and a camera that records these violations of the law. The city then sends a notice to the owner of the vehicle that he or she is liable for the traffic violation and that a fine of $120 has been assessed against him or her. This is a civil citation, not criminal, and carries no criminal penalties. The owner can either pay the penalty, or contest it in an administrative hearing with the city. The owner can then appeal the decision of the administrative hearing officer to the common pleas court under existing Ohio law.

At issue in the case is whether Toledo's civil penalty system for these traffic violations set forth in the Municipal Code violates the Ohio Constitution or Ohio laws because it divests the municipal courts of their jurisdiction to handle these issues. The Sixth District Court of Appeals found that the municipal code provisions violated Article IV, Section 1 of the Ohio Constitution, which vests judicial powers in the courts and O.R.C. 1901.20, which gives municipal courts jurisdiction over violations of municipal ordinances. Toledo appealed the decision.

The Ohio Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision penned by Justice Sharon Kennedy, found that the provisions of Toledo's Municipal Code that set up this scheme of civil penalties for traffic violations did not violate the Constitution or laws of Ohio. The Court held that their previous decision in Mendenhall v. Akron was controlling, stating that "We have already held that municipalities act within their constitutional home-rule powers when they establish automated systems for imposing civil liability on traffic-law violators." In Mendenhall the Court had considered whether a municipality had the authority to create a similar system involving civil penalties for traffic violations under other provisions of the Ohio Constitution and found that this was permissible under home-rule authority because it served as a complementary penalty system and didn't decriminalize the behavior.

Justice Kennedy applied the Mendenhall reasoning to this case, writing, "As we made clear in Mendenhall, civil enforcement of municipal ordinances complements the work of the courts. It does not restrict it. Neither R.C. 1901.20 nor Ohio Constitution, Article IV, Section 1 undermines our analysis in Mendenhall." The Court also found that O.R.C. 1901.20 does not give municipal courts exclusive jurisdiction over violations of traffic ordinances, and that municipalities can conduct civil administrative proceedings regarding these violations under home-rule authority.

Justice O'Neill, writing for the dissent, argued that O.R.C. 1901.20 does give the municipal courts exclusive jurisdiction over city ordinances, and that Toledo's system of civil penalties impermissibly divests the courts of that jurisdiction. He asserted that this case was not about home-rule and that Mendenhall should not apply.

For more information about the case see this article from Court News Ohio.