ELMWOOD PLACE, Ohio – Elmwood Place and its speed camera vendor would have to pay back up to $1.7 million if ticketed motorists win the class-action lawsuit certified Tuesday by the judge who ordered the cameras removed last spring.
Up to 10,000 motorists who paid the $105 tickets would be included in the suit, attorney Mike Allen said.
The village collected more than $1.75 million in fines and fees during the six months the six cameras were in operation from September 2012 to March 2013. Approximately 20,000 tickets were issued, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman wrote in his ruling Tuesday.
Ruehlman certified the class action on behalf of all motorists who paid the fines, additional online charges and hearing fees or other charges under Elmwood Place's Automated Speed Enforcement program. It doesn't include those who didn't pay their tickets and others who already got a court-ordered refund.
“Judge Ruehlman’s ruling today that this case can proceed as a class action is a victory for the common man and woman, I think,” Allen told 9 On Your Side’s Natasha Williams. “If you look at those people who were out at Elmwood at those hearings, it was people on fixed incomes, elderly people. They shelled out 105 bucks, in some cases more, to Elmwood.
“Judge Ruehlman’s ruling today gives us the opportunity to put money back in their pockets.”
A call to Elmwood Place was not returned, Williams reported.
Ruehlman heard arguments earlier this month from Allen, who already represented hundreds of ticketed motorists, and Judd Uhl, special solicitor for the village.
Allen sought to have everyone ticketed by the cameras represented in the suit.
"They can't go and litigate these cases individually," Allen said, citing the thousands of people involved.
Uhl argued that the cases did not meet one of the seven requisites for class action - commonality.
"You have thousands of thousands of tickets with different scenarios, different circumstances. These people don't have a common interest at all," Uhl said.
Elmwood Place has the money to repay the tickets in reserve should it lose its case, Uhl said.
Elmwood Place split the ticket pot 60-40 with Optotraffic, the company that installed and operated the cameras. The village’s share was $1,056,515, according to an April 5 email accounting from Optotraffic. The Maryland-based company got roughly $704,000.
Several elected village leaders have quit amid the controversy over the speed cameras. Mayor Stephanie Morgan resigned this month, and four of the seven council members resigned in May. Vice Mayor Robert Schmidt says he is serving as acting mayor.
In his March ruling, Ruehlman said the speed cameras were illegal because they violated due process, and he issued a permanent injunction against using them.
In June, Ruehlman found the village and Optotraffic in contempt because they continued to operate the cameras after his order to stop. The village argued that it was just collecting data, but Allen noted in his motion that the village continued to collect money from tickets previously issued.
Ruehlman ordered that all money collected from drivers after his March stop order be repaid. That amounted to about $48,500. He also had the sheriff’s office confiscate the cameras until the money was returned.
In his March ruling, Ruehlman called the use of speed cameras “a scam motorists can’t win” and “a game of three card monte,” rejecting the village’s claim they were installed to promote safety.
The cameras were calibrated to ticket any vehicle going more than 5 mph above the speed limit, officials said.
In the first month the cameras were in use, 6,600 tickets went out - triple the village's population. Before some unsuspecting drivers realized it, they had racked up multiple citations.
Once a citation was issued, Ruehlman’s ruling said, there was virtually no way drivers could defend themselves in court. Plus, drivers who opted for a hearing had to pay a $25 fee.
Ruehlman also noted that Optotraffic had a financial stake in their use.
Allen argued that Optotraffic couldn’t be trusted to calibrate the cameras accurately.
At the time, Ruehlman ordered Elmwood Place to pay back 10 plaintiffs who sued the village separately from Allen’s action. The judge also made the village pay legal fees.
Allen has also sued New Miami over the speed cameras in that Butler County village. That case is pending.
In June, the Ohio House passed a bill that would make speed cameras and red-light cameras illegal except in school zones.
The bill, sponsored by Dale Mallory (D-Cincinnati) and Ron Maag (R-Lebanon), has been referred to the Senate committee on State Government Oversight and Reform.
The bill faces opposition from legislators in Columbus, Cleveland, Akron and Toledo, which collect millions of dollars from traffic cameras.