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Local Red Light, School Zone Camera Ordinances Do Not Exceed Cities’ ‘Home Rule’ Authority

2006-2265.  Mendenhall v. Akron, Slip Opinion No. 2008-Ohio-270.
United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, Certifying State Law Questions, Nos. 5:06 CV 0139 and 5:06 CV 0154.  Certified question answered in the affirmative.
Moyer, C.J., and Lundberg Stratton, McFarland, Klatt, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
Pfeifer, J., concurs in the answer only.
Matthew W. McFarland, J., of the Fourth Appellate District, sitting for O'Connor, J.
William A. Klatt, J., of the Tenth Appellate District, sitting for O'Donnell, J.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2008/2008-Ohio-270.pdf Adobe PDF Link opens new window.

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(Jan. 31, 2008) The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled 7-0 today that an Ohio municipality does not exceed its authority under the “home rule” provisions of the state constitution by creating an automated system for enforcement of traffic laws that imposes civil liability on violators, provided that the municipality does not alter any statewide traffic regulation.

Today’s decision, authored by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, was issued in response to a request by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio to resolve a disputed issue of state law.

Kelly Mendenhall and other Akron-area motorists who have been cited for “civil violations” of a new local speeding ordinance enforced through the use of unmanned traffic cameras placed in school zones have challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance under which those citations were issued. While Mendenhall and the other petitioners originally sued in state court, Akron and its Rhode Island-based traffic camera contractor, Nestor Traffic Systems, Inc., removed their cases to federal district court. 

After reviewing the pleadings submitted by the parties, and a decision of Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas holding that a similar Girard city ordinance was unconstitutional, the federal judge assigned to the case stayed his court’s proceedings and asked the Supreme Court of Ohio to determine whether the challenged local ordinances violate the “home rule” provision of the Ohio Constitution. Specifically, the Court was asked to determine whether Akron’s camera-detected speeding ordinance or an ordinance authorizing issuance of a “civil citation” to the owner of a vehicle that is photographed while “running” a red light exceed a municipality’s home rule powers because such ordinances conflict with “general laws of the state” that define speeding and traffic light violations as criminal offenses and subject violators to criminal sanctions.

Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court in today’s decision, Justice Lanzinger confirmed that the Akron speeding ordinance is an exercise of the city’s police powers and that the state statute setting presumptive speed limits on various types of roadways is a “general law” intended to be applied uniformly across the state. With those elements established, she wrote, the remaining legal question is whether the Akron ordinance is “in conflict” with the state law defining speeding offenses.

“To determine whether a conflict exists in this case, we first examine the actual conduct that both the state statute and the municipal ordinance target: control of vehicle speed,” wrote Justice Lanzinger. “The Akron ordinance does not change the existing state speed limits; in that respect, the ordinance prohibits conduct identical to that prohibited by state law. The difference between the state statute and Akron ordinance regarding prohibited conduct relates to the party ultimately responsible for a speed violation. While the state statute punishes the driver of the vehicle directly, the Akron ordinance imposes a fine on a vehicle’s owner, who may or may not be the driver at the time of the violation. Ultimately regardless of the actor who performs it, the actual conduct prohibited — exceeding speed limits — is the same. When a municipal ordinance does nothing more than prohibit the same conduct prohibited by state statute, there is no conflict between the two.”

With regard to the claim advanced by Mendenhall and the other cited drivers that the Akron ordinance conflicts with state law because it “decriminalizes” speeding offenses, Justice Lanzinger wrote: “Those challenging the Akron ordinance argue that ... civil enforcement of violations identified by the automated system decriminalize behavior that is criminal under state law. This argument, however, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the actual effect of the Akron ordinance. The ordinance does not change the speed limits established by state law or change the ability of police officers to cite offenders for traffic violations.”

After the enactment of the Akron ordinance, Justice Lanzinger noted, “a person who speeds and is observed by a police officer remains subject to the usual traffic laws. Only when no police officer is present and the automated camera captures the speed infraction does the Akron ordinance apply, not to invoke the criminal traffic law, but to provide an administrative penalty on the vehicle’s owner. The city ordinance and state law may target identical conduct — speeding — but the city ordinance does not replace traffic law.  It merely supplements it. Furthermore, a person cannot be subject to both criminal and civil liability.  The ordinance states that if a violation is both recorded by the automated system and observed by a police officer, then the criminal violation takes precedence. The Akron ordinance complements rather than conflicts with state law.”

Finally, Justice Lanzinger noted that legal issues other than the home rule question addressed in today’s decision have been raised with regard to municipal “red light camera” ordinances. “Although there have been due process questions regarding the operation of the Akron Ordinance and those similar to it, they are not appropriately before us at this time. and will not be discussed here,” she wrote.  “We hold merely that an Ohio municipality does not exceed its home rule authority when it creates an automated system for enforcement of traffic laws that imposes civil liability upon violators, provided that the municipality does not alter statewide traffic regulations.”

Justice Lanzinger’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Robert R. Cupp, and by Judge Matthew W. McFarland of the 4th District Court of Appeals, who sat in place of Justice Maureen O’Connor, and Judge William A. Klatt of the 10th District Court of Appeals, who sat in place of Justice Terrence O’Donnell.  Justice Paul E. Pfeifer concurred in the Court’s answer to the certified question of law, but did not join the opinion.

Contacts
Stephen Fallis, 330.375.2030, for the City of Akron.

Jacquenette S. Corgan, 330.535.9160, for Kelly Mendenhall.