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|Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson|
CLEVELAND, Ohio-A three-judge panel of the Ohio Eighth District Court of Appeals unanimously ruled on Thursday that Cleveland's red light traffic ticket cameras that take snapshots of speeding motorists for subsequent fines are unconstitutional and illegal because Ohio's municipal courts have sole authority or jurisdiction over violations of codified city ordinances under the the Ohio Constitution. In that same case that same judicial panel also ruled 2 to 1 that appellant Sam Jodka, the trial court defendant who prosecuted the appeal via his attorneys, could not retrieve the monies he paid for the camera ticket, a civil and not criminal infraction, because he did not appeal the ticket through the administrative appeals process. It is that administrative appeals process, which differs from a regular appeal of a lower trial court ruling, that the appeals court says is in discrepancy and that cannot take the place of Ohio municipal courts.(Editor's note: The Ohio Constitution created the judicial branch of government and gives the state legislature authority to establish municipal courts, which were created under state law, namely Ohio Revised Code 1901.02)
Jodka of Columbus, Ohio, who got the digital speeding ticket when he was in town from Columbus and driving through Cleveland, is represented in the case by attorneys Andrew R. Mayle, Ronald J. Mayle and Jeremiah S. Ray of the Columbus law firm of Mayle, Ray & Mayle, and Attorney John T. Murray of the law firm of Murray & Murray Co., also a Columbus law firm.
The decision reverses a Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas ruling against Jodka and in the city's favor.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who supports the cameras as does Cleveland City Council per a now defunct controversial city ordinance, did not return phone calls seeking comment on whether the city will appeal, though sources say it is likely since the camera tickets generated millions annually for the impoverished predominantly Black major American city. The mayor's spokesperson, Maureen Harper, told reporters that the camera ticket program has been suspended as a result of the state appellate court ruling until further notice.
"We received the ruling late yesterday and the law department is reviewing the ruling," said Harper in a press release to Cleveland Urban News.Com, Ohio's most read digital Black newspaper.
"At issue is how the appeals process for these civil violations is handled," said Harper, who added that "the city's process for automated rulings traffic cameras has been suspended while we continue to review the ruling and determine our next step."
The camera tickets at issue generate fines that start at $100 with additional fees if not paid within a specified period of time
Judge Kenneth Rocco wrote the 25-page opinion for the three -judge eighth district appellate panel in thecase, which also includes judges Mary Eileen Kilbane, a former Cleveland Municipal Court judge, and Sean Gallagher.
The controversial ruling, that community activists applaud, puts an end to the city's traffic camera program absent either the reversal of the decision by the Ohio Supreme Court, if it agrees to hear the case, or if the Ohio Supreme Court reverses a similar decision against traffic cameras in the city of Toledo in a Lucas County sixth district appellate court case there that it has agreed to hear. City officials could also hope for a long shot constitutional amendment of the provision for jurisdiction by the judicial branch, a costly endeavor that would require a voter adopted referendum after petitioners get six percent of signatures commensurate to the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election. Ohio voters must approve changes to the Ohio Constitution.
Thursday's decision also ends a similar traffic camera program that voters approved in neighboring East Cleveland because decisions by the Eighth District Court of Appeals, unless stated otherwise in the ruling, are binding in Cuyahoga County, which includes the cities of Cleveland and East Cleveland, among other municipalities and villages. It also affects traffic cameras in other cities in the county that utilize an administrative appeals process relative to the camera tickets.
"We knew the appeals court would find them unconstitutional," said community activist Art McKoy," the founder of the grassroots group Black on Black Crime Inc who led protests around the traffic cameras in Cleveland and East Cleveland, a poor Black suburb of Cleveland, and who unsuccessfully fought a voter adopted referendum led by East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton to keep them in East Cleveland, one that is now likely null and void in conjunction with the eighth district's court decision.
McKoy said that "the money grabbing people, including Black city council members in Cleveland, lost."
Activists also opposed the cameras in Cleveland alleging that they may violate the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because they are disproportionately situated in Black areas of Cleveland, partly because Black eastside council members support them, and the manner in which they are disparately applied.
The city of Cleveland, which has a population of some 400,000 people, is 58 percent Black, while East Cleveland, a city with some 18,000 people, is about 98 percent Black.
Cleveland Ward 6 Councilwoman Mamie Mitchell, a former assistant county prosecutor, said the appeals decision does not surprise her because issuing speeding and other infraction tickets by camera denies defendants getting the tickets due process as to "the right to confront their accusers." That issue of a potential violation of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution relative to Ohio traffic cameras is being taken up by Cincinnati courts and will likely end up before the Ohio Supreme Court also.
The Ohio Supreme Court does not have to hear an appeal of the appellate decision in the Cleveland case but could take up the matter anyway, sources say, since it raises a constitutional question, and is one of great general and public interest.
The seven-member all White and majority Republican Ohio Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, hears roughly three percent of the appeals filed annually, data show. But unlike the case at issue there are some cases the state's high court must hear such as capital murder cases and cases that originate in the state's appellate courts including some petitions for writs of prohibition, mandamus and procedendo. Likely though, the issue will be heard in a pending appeal before the Ohio Supreme Court that it has agreed to review titled Walker vs. Toledo, a sixth district court of appeals case in which a three-judge panel there also ruled that Ohio traffic cameras are unconstitutional, and thus illegal because jurisdiction rests with Ohio municipal courts.
If the Ohio Supreme Court upholds the sixth district decision, or otherwise determines the cameras unconstitutional, it will be applicable for the state of Ohio.
A bill pending in the Ohio state legislature dubbed HB 69 that would make the traffic cameras illegal under state law passed the Ohio House of Representatives last year and is now in committee before the Ohio Senate. Whether the Ohio General Assembly will decide the matter before the Ohio Supreme Court does remains to be seen, though Thursday's decision also makes mention of state lawmakers having authority to adopt a state law around the traffic cameras.
Cleveland City Law Director Barbara Langhenry could not be reached either for comment on whether city officials will ask the Ohio Supreme Court to accept jurisdiction to hear the Cleveland case as consolidated with that of Toledo though Harper, director of communications for the city, said that the city is weighing its options.
Clevelander Angela Schmitt, a White westside community activist who supports the traffic cameras and writes forStreetsblog.net, an Internet website, told Cleveland Urban News.Com on Friday that she believes the traffic cameras are needed and that they save lives.
"A Black man is two times more likely than a White man to get killed as a pedestrian by speeding motorists in Cleveland," said Schmitt, who agreed that the city will likely have an uphill battle getting a reversal of the appeals court decision since it cringes upon a jurisdictional issue pertaining to the Ohio Constitution.
Schmitt, a former Toledo Blade Newspaper reporter, said also that placing the Cleveland traffic cameras disproportionately in poor Black areas of town is not something she supports.
Community Activist Larry Bresler, a trained lawyer turned community activist for the poor who leads the Northeast Ohio Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign and Organize Ohio, said that East Cleveland city officials are probably up in arms over the court ruling and the loss of revenue.