An Ohio judge says Elmwood Place's automated speed-traffic cameras are "a scam" that cheats drivers out of $105 a pop.
If you happen to drive too fast through Elmwood Place, Ohio, the cards are stacked against you, according to a judge who calls the village's automated speeding camera "a scam that motorists can't win."
Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman on Thursday ruled that the village's ordinance violated due process. He issued an injunction barring its enforcement.
There have been numerous legal challenges across the U.S. to red-light camera laws but observers said this is the first ruling they know of striking down a municipality's speeding-camera law.
"Speed-camera cases have been litigated but we have not come across one where a judge has said, 'Stop this,'" attorney Mike Allen, whose firm brought the case, told MSN News on Friday. "I think it's going to touch off a firestorm around the country. I really do."
Calls and emails by MSN News to Elmwood Place village officials and police Chief William Peskin were not immediately returned on Friday. Allen said he expects the village to appeal.
Ruehlman sprinkled colorful language in his ruling striking down Elmwood's "automated speed enforcement program," which is carried out by Optotraffic, a Lanham, Md.-based company, under a contract with the village. Optotraffic gets a 40 percent cut of the revenues from fines it collects.
The two cameras installed in town reportedly resulted in 6,600 speeding citations — three times the village's population -— at $105 a pop in the first month after enforcement began in September.
The judge, who heard arguments in January, found that the ordinance fails to provide due process to people receiving a notice of fines in the mail. He said the village doesn’t have a sign warning motorists that traffic cameras are in operation, as required by state law.
To challenge the $105 fine, a motorist has to pay $25 for a hearing that is "nothing more than a sham!" the judge wrote. At the hearing, he said, the "witness" for the village testifies from a report produced by the company that owns the speed-monitoring unit. Since the "witness" was not present when the alleged violation occurred, he or she can't be cross-examined, Ruehlman wrote.
Judge: Village's traffic cameras 'high-tech game of 3-card Monte'
Moreover, he said, the device was not calibrated by a certified police officer.
"Remember, Optotraffic has a financial stake in this game. I use the term 'game' because Elmwood Place is engaged in nothing more than a high-tech game of 3 CARD MONTY," the judge wrote emphatically. "It is a scam that motorists can't win."
He noted that individuals and businesses in Elmwood Place have suffered as a result of the traffic cameras. "Churches have lost members who are frightened to come to Elmwood and individuals who have received notices were harmed because they were unable to defend themselves against the charges brought against them," he said.
The judge's decision did not address what happens to the fines already collected.
The controversy over the cameras has also spawned petition drives, demands for the mayor to step down and calls to boycott the village.
Thirteen states have speed cameras in operation, while 12 states have passed laws prohibiting them, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Many more states have red-light cameras in operation.
Judge hears arguments in speed camera lawsuit
Critics of speed and red-light cameras argue that the devices violate motorists' rights. The say municipalities and law enforcement agencies are using automatic cameras mainly to raise revenue, not to boost traffic safety.
"It's very rare you get a decision like this regardless of the size of the town," said Barnet Fagel, a Chicago-area man known as "The Ticket Doctor," who appears as a court expert for attorneys challenging traffic tickets. "Being there is so much money involved, it's rare you get a judicial person who stands up" against such ordinances, he told MSN.
Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which supports automated traffic cameras, said he wasn't aware of any previous rulings like the Ohio one.
"It’s a local legal decision, but it's alarming to think that speed or red-light cameras cannot be part of a state's traffic safety program," Adkins told MSN News.
"They're one of many tools in the toolbox. We're not advocating for a camera on every corner, but there are places where cameras are needed and they've been proven over and over to save lives."
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