Smile…You’re on Traffic Cameras!

Author: Chris Tieke, Contributing Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Bradley L. Walker v. City of Toledo, et al. and the fate of Ohio’s municipal automated traffic enforcement programs.

Under Article XVIII of the Ohio Constitution, municipalities have home rule powers that provide them the “authority to exercise all powers of local self-government and to adopt and enforce within their limits such local police, sanitary and other similar regulations, as are not in conflict with general laws.”[i] This year the Ohio Supreme Court will decide whether a chartered Ohio municipality has the constitutional right under its home rule powers to conduct administrative hearings as a means of enforcing punishments for violations of its red light and speed monitoring camera systems.  This case comes to the Court on appeal from a decision of the Ohio Court of Appeals Sixth Appellate District which held that a City of Toledo ordinance instituting an automated traffic enforcement system unconstitutionally attempted to usurp the jurisdiction of the municipal courts as provided to them by the legislature in R.C. 1901.20.[ii]  The Supreme Court of Ohio should affirm the Sixth District’s decision and find the Toledo ordinance unconstitutional since jurisdiction over all traffic violations rests exclusively with municipal courts and the ordinance unconstitutionally conflicts with general state traffic laws.

Traffic Cameras

Under Toledo Municipal Code 313.12 monetary liability is imposed on the owner of a vehicle who fails to comply with traffic laws or posted speed limits.  In 2003, as a means of enforcing its traffic laws, the City of Toledo (‘Toledo”) instituted automated red light cameras and speed monitoring devices.  RedFlex Traffic Systems, Inc. (“RedFlex”) installed and synchronized the cameras and automatic speed monitoring devices with Toledo’s traffic signals and speed limits.  Toledo’s transportation, police and law departments were tasked with administering the system.

The traffic cameras took pictures of vehicles that entered the intersection after the traffic signal turned red.  The speed monitoring devices captured those vehicles that exceeded posted speed limits.[iii]  When a violation was recorded, the registered owner of the vehicle was sent a “Notice of Liability” indicating that the individual was liable for a civil penalty of $120.[iv]  The fact that an individual was the registered owner of a vehicle was “prima-facia evidence” that the owner was operating the vehicle at the time of the offense.[v]  The Notice of Liability also described the appeals process.  An individual wishing to appeal must file a notice of appeal with a hearing officer within twenty-one days from the date listed on the Notice of Liability.  The appeals were heard through an administrative process established by the City of Toledo Police Department.  A decision in favor of Toledo may be enforced by means of a civil action or any other means provided by the Ohio Revised Code.[vi]  Toledo and Redflex share in the revenues generated from payments made by drivers to satisfy the civil penalties.

Bradley L. Walker, a resident of Paducah, Kentucky, was issued a Notice of Liability.  He paid the $120 civil penalty.  On February 24, 2011, Walker brought a class action suit against Toledo and Redflex on behalf of himself and those similarly situated, to recover the civil penalty he and the others had paid.[vii]  Walker argued that the legal structure and administrative process by which the civil penalties were collected was unconstitutional.  At trial Walker made three arguments: (1) Toledo’s ordinance implementing the automated traffic enforcement system unconstitutionally usurped the jurisdiction of the Toledo Municipal Court by allowing appeals to be heard by an administrative hearing officer set up within the Toledo police department; (2) the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague because it delegated adjudicatory authority to the police department without articulating specific governance principles; and (3) the due process of those who received Notices of Liability was violated because the police department failed to establish any consistent administrative procedures.[viii]  Toledo and Redflex filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.  The trial court granted the motion to dismiss.  The 6th District Court of Appeals reversed.

Sixth District Court of Appeals Decision

Interpretation of Mendenhall v. Akron

Initially Toledo and Redflex argued that Walker’s claim should be dismissed pursuant to the Ohio Supreme Court’s holding in Mendenhall v. Akron.   Mendenhall involved a traffic enforcement ordinance in the City of Akron similar to Toledo’s.  The Akron ordinance authorized the installation of an automated mobile speed enforcement system and the imposition of civil monetary fines when the posted speed limit in the targeted enforcement areas was violated.[ix]  Like the Toledo ordinance, violators received a notice of liability.  Unlike individuals who receive a speeding citation from a police officer, speeders caught by the automated cameras did not receive criminal sanctions and did not have to go to traffic court.[x]  Mendenhall and others who had received notices of liability, challenged the Akron ordinance in federal court, and the Ohio Supreme Court addressed the certified question of “whether a municipality has the power under home rule to enact civil penalties for the offense of violating a traffic signal light or for the offense of speeding, both of which are criminal offenses under the Ohio Revised Code.”[xi]

Answering in the affirmative, the Court in Mendenhall held 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.”  The Court further held that the Akron ordinance did not explicitly or implicitly conflict with Ohio law.  Specifically, the Court rejected the argument that the ordinance conflicted with state traffic laws because it changed the character of the traffic offense of speeding by instituting a civil penalty instead of criminal punishments.  The Court held that the Akron ordinance supplemented state traffic laws rather than changed state law regarding speeding or the ability of police officers to give citations for traffic violations.[xii]  A person who was caught speeding by a police officer was still subject to usual traffic laws, whereas a person caught speeding by the automated camera system was subject to an administrative penalty on the vehicle’s owner.[xiii]  The Court had no problem with the fact that the Akron ordinance and state law targeted identical conduct – speeding.  Finally, the Court noted that “although there are due process questions regarding the operation of the Akron Ordinance and those similar to it, those questions are not appropriately before us at this time and will not be discussed here.”[xiv]

The Sixth District Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s view that Mendenhall was not dispositive of Walker’s claim regarding the Toledo ordinance.  The court stated, “the question of the constitutionality of the [Akron] ordinance was not before the court [in the Mendenhall case].”[xv]  Therefore, the Sixth District read the Ohio Supreme Court’s statement that it was not addressing the due process concerns of the Akron Ordinance as an express limitation on the holding in Mendenhall.

Constitutional Claims[xvi]

Municipal Court Jurisdictional Infringement

The Sixth District held that the Toledo municipal ordinance implementing automated traffic control systems violated Article IV, Section 1 of the Ohio Constitution by divesting the municipal court of its jurisdiction by establishing “an administrative alternative without the express approval of the legislature.”[xvii]

Article IV, Section 1 of the Ohio Constitution states that judicial power “is vested in a supreme court, courts of appeals, courts of common pleas and divisions thereof, and such other courts inferior to the Supreme Court as may from time to time be established by law.”[xviii]  The Ohio legislature has defined the jurisdiction of municipal courts in R.C. 1901.20, which is entitled “Criminal and traffic jurisdiction.”[xix]  The statutory language reads, in part, that, municipal courts have “jurisdiction of the violation of any ordinance of any municipal corporation within its territory, unless the violation is required to be handled by a parking violations bureau […].” (emphasis added).[xx]  Walker argued that the Toledo ordinance implementing automated traffic cameras and speed-monitoring devices was an ordinance of a municipal corporation and was not a parking violation.  Any violation of the ordinance, therefore, must come under the jurisdiction of the municipal court and may not be heard at an extrajudicial administrative hearing.[xxi]  On the other hand, Toledo and Redflex argued that when the legislature grants exclusive jurisdiction over a set of issues it must do so expressly and unambiguously.[xxii]  Accordingly, R.C. 1901.20 did not give exclusive jurisdiction to the municipal courts to hear traffic violations.  Toledo and Redflex further contended that R.C. 1901.20 only applied to criminal ordinances, not civil matters and civil penalties such as those imposed under the Toledo ordinance.[xxiii]

The court arrived at its decision to overturn the Toledo ordinance through a basic exercise in statutory interpretation. As a first rule of statutory interpretation, the court refused to attach any significance to the chapter’s heading “Criminal and traffic jurisdiction.”[xxiv]  Second, the court focused on the word “any” in the Ohio legislature’s grant of municipal court jurisdiction given in R.C. 1901.20(A)(1).  Applying a rule of construction that construes undefined words and phrases according to rules of grammar and common, plain meaning usage, the court looked to the dictionary definition of “any” and concluded that “any” meant “every.”[xxv]  Therefore, according to the court, the first sentence of R.C. 1901.20(A)(1) had “unambiguously granted municipal courts jurisdiction over a violation of every and all municipal ordinances within its territory, unless, in certain circumstances, the offense is a parking violation.”[xxvi]  Therefore, the court concluded that the Toledo ordinance had attempted to usurp the jurisdiction of the municipal court in violation of Article IV, Section 1 of the Ohio Constitution.[xxvii]

Void for Vagueness

Under Ohio law, a legislative enactment that creates an administrative body must set forth sufficient criteria to guide that administrative body in the exercise of its discretion.[xxviii]  Walker claimed that the provision of the Toledo ordinance was constitutionally vague since it delegated all authority to the police department to establish an administrative process to hear appeals of violations.  Furthermore, the process was established exclusively by the police department without any legislatively mandated standards or mechanism for review of that administrative decision.[xxix]  The court held that while the delegation of authority was “extremely Spartan,” it did not rise to the level of constitutional vagueness.[xxx]

Due Process Violation

The court noted found that “at a minimum, due process of law requires notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard.”[xxxi] In this case, the Toledo police had never established an administrative appeal process to provide review of administrative hearing decisions regarding Notices of Liability.[xxxii]  Therefore, Walker’s claim that the absence of such a review violated due process should not have been dismissed by the trial court.

Judge Yarbrough’s Dissent

Judge Yarbrough disagreed with the majority in both the statutory construction it gave to R.C. 1901.20 and its interpretation of Mendenhall.  Judge Yarbrough argued that the majority incorrectly interpreted the word “any” in R.C. 1901.20(A)(1) as granting exclusive jurisdiction to the municipal court over misdemeanor criminal offenses and traffic violations.[xxxiii]  He contended that had the legislature intended to grant exclusive jurisdiction to the municipal courts, it would have used the word “exclusive” as an adjectival modifier of the subject-noun “jurisdiction.”[xxxiv]  As additional evidence, Judge Yarbrough pointed to other instances where the legislature signaled that it was granting exclusive jurisdiction, such as in R.C. 2151.23, which states that the “juvenile court has exclusive jurisdiction under the Revised Code as follows […].”[xxxv]  In this instance, he argued, the word “any” did not mean “all” and the majority incorrectly concluded that R.C. 1901.20 gave municipal courts jurisdiction over all violations of city traffic ordinances.

According to Judge Yarbrough, Mendenhall stands for the proposition that an Ohio municipality does not exceed its home-rule authority when it creates an automated system for enforcement of its traffic laws through civil penalties, provided that such system is complementary to and does not alter state law.[xxxvi]  Judge Yarbrough argued that consistent with Mendenhall, the Toledo ordinance created a “civil-infraction system for enforcing red-light and speed-limit ordinances by means of automated cameras” that was complimentary and concurrent to the municipal court’s jurisdiction to hear criminal violations of traffic ordinances.[xxxvii]

The Supreme Court of Ohio Should Find the Toledo Ordinance Unconstitutional

“Any” Really Does Mean “Every”

Ohio Revised Code section 1901.20 provides that “the municipal court has jurisdiction of the violation of any ordinance of any municipal corporation […].”  The statute does not define the term “any” and therefore, the Sixth District applied a rule of construction that construes words and phrases according to the rules of grammar and common usage.[xxxviii] The Sixth District correctly noted that the term “any” modifies the term “ordinance” and the phrase “municipal corporation.”  Thus the municipal court has jurisdiction over any ordinance implemented by any municipal corporation.  Simply because the word “any” does not modify “jurisdiction,” does not detract from the clear intent of the legislature to give exclusive jurisdiction to municipal courts over violations of every municipal ordinance, including those having to do with enforcing traffic violations.  The Ohio Supreme Court should accept this well-reasoned interpretation.

A Crime is Really a Crime

Even if the Ohio Supreme Court holds that R.C. 1901.20 does not provide exclusive jurisdiction over all moving traffic violations, the Court should take this opportunity to reevaluate its untenable position that the character of a traffic offense is not altered when a municipal ordinance creates a concurrent administrative scheme that treats what would otherwise be a criminal violation, as a civil violation simply because the act is observed by a camera rather than a police officer.

In Canton v. State, the Court established a three-part test to determine whether a municipality had exceeded its home rule powers.[xxxix]  Under the test, a state statute takes precedence over a municipal ordinance when “the ordinance is in conflict with the statute.”[xl]  One way to demonstrate a conflict with a state statute is to show that the statue changes the character or nature of an offense.[xli] Speeding and red light enforcement are governed by state law.[xlii]  These state laws are enforced by police officers who observe vehicle operators who do not obey posted speed limits or zoom through red lights at an intersection.  The Toledo ordinance targets the same conduct, but provides for a civil, administrative penalty when a driver speeds or runs a red light and is caught by a camera.  Thus a driver driving 55 mph in a 45 mph zone is only committing a crime in violation of the traffic laws if caught by a police officer. Should that same driver be caught instead by a speed camera, the same 10 mph violation magically transforms itself into a civil violation enforced by an administrative penalty.  This reflects a conflict of laws rather than complementary systems of traffic enforcement.

Reverse Course

The Court should reverse its previous position that a municipality’s concurrent automated traffic enforcement system imposing an administrative penalty on violators does not conflict with general state traffic laws by changing the character of certain traffic offenses – in this case speeding and running a red light.  Such automated traffic enforcement systems, including the one established in the Toledo ordinance in Walker, conflict with general state traffic laws and are therefore, an unconstitutional exercise of a municipality’s home rule powers.

[i] Ohio Const. art. XVIII, §18.03.

[ii] Bradley L. Walker v. City of Toledo, 994 N.E.2d  467 (Ohio Ct. App. 2013).

[iii] Under the Toledo Municipal Code an offense occurs when a “vehicle crosses a marked stop line or the intersection plane at a system location when the traffic signal for that vehicle’s direction is ernitting a steady red. T.M.C. 313.12(c)(1).  An offense also occurs when a “vehicle is operated at a speed in excess of those set forth in TMC Section 333.01” T.M.C. 313.12(c)(2).

[iv] Id. at 313.12(d)(1)(2).

[v] Id. at 313.12(c)(3).

[vi] Id. at 313.13(d)(4).

[vii] Walker, 994 N.E.2d at ¶3.

[viii] Id. at ¶4.

[ix] Mendenhall v. Akron, 117 Ohio St.3d 33, ¶¶ 5-6 (2008).

[x] Id. at ¶6.

[xi] Id. at ¶2.

[xii] Id. at ¶37.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id. at ¶40.

[xv] Walker, 994 N.E.2d at ¶12.

[xvi] In addition to addressing the constitutional claims, which are the topic of this article, the court addressed other defenses proffered by the City and RedFlex.  The court held that the trial court properly rejected the City’s claim that Walker lacked standing and Redflex’s claim that Walker had not exhausted all his administrative remedies, or in the alternative, that RedFlex was not a state actor.  See ¶¶ 14 – 21 of the opinion for more details.

[xvii] Walker, 994 N.E.2d at  ¶36.

[xviii] Ohio Const. art. IV, §1.

[xix] R.C. 1901.20(A)(1).  As the dissent notes, R.C. 1901.20 is now entitled “Criminal jurisdiction; appeals from noncriminal traffic violations.”

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Walker, 994 N.E.2d at ¶¶ 24 – 25.

[xxii] Id. at ¶26.

[xxiii] Id.

[xxiv] Id.  This rule of construction is codified in R.C. 1.01 which states, in part, that “Title, Chapter, and headings […] do not constitute part of the law as contained in the ‘Revised Code.’”

[xxv] Id. at ¶32.  This rule of construction is codified in R.C. 1.42 which states that “words and phrases shall be read in context and construed according to the rules of grammar and common usage.”

[xxvi] Walker, 994 N.E.2d at  ¶32.

[xxvii] Id. at ¶36.  The court noted that the legislature has created many administrative bodies such as the Boards of Zoning Appeals, and Tax Appeals Boards by statutorily creating exceptions to municipal court review.  In this case, the legislature had not done this.

[xxviii] Id. at ¶37.  The court cites Hudson v. Albrecht, 9 Ohio St3d 69, 448 N.E.2d 852 (1984).

[xxix] Id. at ¶37.

[xxx] Id. at ¶38.

[xxxi] Walker, 994 N.E.2d at ¶39.

[xxxii] Id. The court took notice of this fact since it was alleged in the complaint and must be taken as true on the motion to dismiss that was considered at the trial court level.

[xxxiii] Walker, 994 N.E.2d at ¶47 (Yarbrough, J., dissenting).

[xxxiv] Id.

[xxxv] Id. at ¶52.

[xxxvi] Id. at ¶43.

[xxxvii] Walker, 994 N.E.2d at ¶ 44, ¶59 (Yarbrough, J., dissenting).

[xxxviii] Walker, 994 N.E.2d at ¶31.

[xxxix] Canton v. State, 95 Ohio.St.3d 149, ¶9 (2008).

[xl] Id.

[xli] Cleveland v. Betts, 168 Ohio.St.3d 386, 389 (1958).

[xlii] See R.C. §§ 4511.12, 4511.13, 4511.21.


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