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City Must File Separate Case to Block Funding Deductions for Collecting Traffic Camera Fines

Image of a traffic signal with a camera mounted above it

Court rules lower courts did not take proper steps to block state’s latest effort to curb use of traffic cameras.

Image of a traffic signal with a camera mounted above it

Court rules lower courts did not take proper steps to block state’s latest effort to curb use of traffic cameras.

A trial court could not block implementation of a 2015 state law deducting funding to local governments that use traffic cameras to collect fines without first declaring the law unconstitutional, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court unanimously  vacated a contempt of court order that the Lucas County Common Pleas Court issued, and dissolved the injunction against enforcing the spending provisions that were in the state’s 2015 budget bill, House Bill 64. The Court did not determine whether the “Set-Off Law” was constitutional, but faulted the city of Toledo and the lower courts for the process used to prevent the law from taking effect.

Writing for the Court, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated the separations-of-powers doctrine prevents the judicial branch from impeding on the General Assembly’s power to enact laws.

“Courts may intervene only after a legislative enactment has been passed and challenged in an action properly before it,” she wrote.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Mary DeGenaro joined the opinion, as did Tenth District Court of Appeals Judge William A. Klatt, sitting for Justice Terrence O’Donnell, who did not participate in the case.

Cities Raise Multiple Challenges to State Camera Restriction Laws
Since 1999, Toledo has used traffic cameras to civilly enforce traffic law, specifically using speed and traffic-signal monitoring. In 2014, the General Assembly enacted Senate Bill 342, which attempted to regulate the use of municipal traffic cameras. Toledo and several other cities, including Dayton, challenged the constitutionality of S.B. 342, arguing the law violated the home rule provisions of the Ohio Constitution that gave the municipalities the right to impose their own laws in certain situations. In April 2015, the Lucas County Common Pleas Court declared portions of S.B. 342 unconstitutional and the state regulations were place on hold while the challenge was appealed.

As the appeals were pending, state lawmakers enacted the Set-Off Law in 2015 as part of the state’s two-year budget bill, H.B. 64. The new legislation required every municipality using the traffic cameras to either comply with S.B. 342 or report the amount of fines collected by the use of cameras. The state would then reduce the municipalities’ shares of the state local government fund by an “amount equal to one-third the gross amount of fines” imposed by the traffic cameras.

In response to the new legislation, Toledo requested the trial court prevent the state from enforcing the law because compliance was based on following regulations that were still being challenged. The trial court ruled that H.B. 64 had the effect of nullifying its permanent injunction of S.B. 342, and held the state in contempt from violating the injunction. The court enjoined the state from enforcing the spending reduction provisions.

The state challenged the local court ruling and the Sixth District Court of Appeals affirmed it. The state then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing the trial court had no right to enjoin the new law or hold the state in contempt by continuing the litigation of S.B. 342. The state argued that if the city wanted to challenge the constitutionality of H.B. 64, it had to file a separate complaint. The state also asserted the challenge would be unsuccessful because H.B. 64 is constitutional.

Supreme Court Considers Camera Legislation
While the state was contesting the injunction and contempt orders issued by the Lucas County Common Pleas Court in response to H.B. 64, the Ohio Supreme Court decided in 2017 Dayton v. State that three key components of S.B. 342 were unconstitutional violations of the cities’ home rule rights.

Toledo argued the trial court had continuing jurisdiction over the camera regulations and the General Assembly is not permitted to use its spending power to interfere with the city’s home-rule authority. It asked the Supreme Court to rule the Set-Off Law unconstitutional because it attempted to coerce the city into complying with regulations that conflict with laws Toledo passed using the city’s home-rule authority.

Justice Kennedy wrote the Supreme Court had to determine if the trial court has the authority to issue an injunction preventing the enforcement of the Set-Off Law and hold the state in contempt for attempting to enforce it.

Court Power to Block Legislation Limited
The opinion explained that to enjoin an action is an “extraordinary remedy” that is to be granted when no other adequate legal remedy is available. And it noted that Court has cautioned as early as 1887 in Patterson v. Lamson that a court should exercise great caution in granting an injunction that interferes with another branch of government.

The Court stated in Ohio a statute cannot be invalidated or enjoined unless it is unconstitutional. It noted the General Assembly has enacted a specific procedure for attacking the constitutionality of a statute in R.C. 2721.12(A). The law requires the challenger to assert a claim and serve it on the Ohio attorney general.

“Compliance with R.C. 2721.12(A) is required to invoke the trial court’s jurisdiction over a constitutional challenge,” the opinion stated.

Toledo did not file a complaint to challenge H.B. 64 and did not prove that the Set-Off Law was unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt, the Court noted. It also indicated that neither the trial court nor the Sixth District decided the new provisions were unconstitutional before preventing them from going into effect.

The opinion also stated that a court cannot issue a contempt order unless the order is “clear, definite, unambiguous, and not subject to dual interpretations.” The Court found the 2015 injunction blocking S.B. 342 from taking effect did not “clearly, definitely, and unambiguously prohibit the General Assembly from passing future legislation relating to traffic cameras.” Moreover, the Court found, the separation-of-powers principles prevent the judiciary from attempting to stop the legislature from enacting laws.

The Court explained the judiciary may only limit the exercise of legislative power by finding a statutory provision is not “in accord with the federal and state constitutions.” It found the trial court abused its discretion in attempting to enjoin the state from enforcing H.B. 64 and holding it in contempt.

2017-0327. Toledo v. State, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-2358.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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