The small town of Elmwood Place, Ohio, population 2,187, has just taught us all an important lesson in civics.
As found by Judge Robert Ruehlman, the installation of traffic cameras in the town of Elmwood are unenforceable and invalid.
The facts of this particular case are that Elmwood had hired a for-profit company to install traffic cameras, which would photograph speeders, sending pictures of their license plate and vehicles to the residence of registration — resulting in a fine of over $100. The fees have generated $1.5 million, 60% of which went to Elmwood Place, 40% of which went to the company that provide and operate the traffic cameras. The plaintiffs in the case argued there was not adequate signage posted for the speed limits or notifying motorists of the traffic cameras and local business were suffering as people were taking alternate routes to avoid the cameras.
The traffic fines issued are civil and not criminal, no points go on the accused license and the cameras serve as an additional source of revenue to the city. The company who owns the traffic cameras has financial rewards with the issuing of tickets. That alone does not allow for a fair hearing for the accused motorist. Should the ticketed motorist wish to contest the fine they were required to pay $25 to request a hearing, without guarantee that the administrative fee will be refunded if the judgment is in the motorists favor.
In his ruling, the judge found the traffic cameras were unconstitutional and in violation of both Ohio’s and the United States Constitution. His arguments were based on the Fifth Amendment in the Bill of Rights, and the accused rights of due process.
The Fifth Amendment ensures (in part) that people are not deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of the law. The Ohio Constitution allows for a person facing penalties to defend themselves based on evidence, testimony and questioning of witnesses. In this specific case, the “witness” for a hearing would a be a representative from the city of Elmwood Place who would read a report provided by the company which owns the traffic cameras — who have a financial stake in the process.
Obviously (most) drivers wish to be safe, drive within the speed limits, and not abuse rules of the road. There are circumstances where it is necessary to violate the laws of traffic. Perhaps a driver is avoiding an accident, maybe it is raining, snowing or weather is affecting the functionality of the machinery. A ticketed driver has the right to go before a judge and defend themselves against the violation.
Traffic cameras such as these presume guilt, and do not provide motorists with the opportunity of a fair hearing because a machine is unable to make a determination on why a traffic law was potentially violated. A police officer who has witnessed a traffic violation can, but a camera cannot.
Technology can be a wonderful thing, but unless we have missed some great technological innovation in the ability of a machine’s discernment, a piece of machinery cannot act as a witness to the circumstances surrounding the violation.