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Keep the traffic cameras

Statehouse politicians shouldn’t substitute their judgment for that of law-enforcement professionals

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    A Red-Light camera on the southbound corner of Secor and Monroe Streets.

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    Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Dean Mandros

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cameras29

A Red-Light camera on the southbound corner of Secor and Monroe Streets.

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Statehouse politicians are all for home rule and local control — except when they aren’t. A bad new state law imposes unreasonable restrictions on Ohio communities, including Toledo, that operate traffic cameras to identify and cite speeders and red-light runners. It deserves to be struck down.

This month, Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge Dean Mandros effectively suspended enforcement of the new law in Toledo while he reviews arguments by city officials that the law violates home-rule provisions of the state Constitution. The cities of Columbus, Dayton, Akron, Springfield, and East Cleveland also are challenging the law, which the General Assembly passed and Gov. John Kasich signed last year.

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There have been isolated reports of a few Ohio communities using traffic cameras primarily as revenue-raising devices in speed traps. If Toledo is engaging in the cash grab its critics contend, it isn’t working very well: The city has failed to collect more than $14 million in camera-related fines dating back five years.

Most communities that use cameras, including Toledo, do so for valid law-enforcement purposes. The Toledo Police Department has 48 cameras at 28 sites across the city, as well as a mobile unit to detect speeding in school zones.

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Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Dean Mandros

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Department officials offer statistical evidence that the cameras have significantly reduced traffic collisions and violations, as well as speeding on such notoriously high-velocity thoroughfares as the Anthony Wayne Trail. They add that the cameras supplement the work of uniformed officers who can’t be at every busy intersection all the time.

The new law negates this advantage by requiring a police officer to observe a violation personally, even if it is caught on camera, before a civil citation can be issued. That forced duplication of effort renders the cameras excessively costly and essentially useless — just as the law’s supporters intend.

At the same time, Toledo officials say, the law does not indicate what should replace the camera program to enforce traffic law. Is state government prepared to restore the aid to local communities that it’s slashed in recent years, so that they can hire more police officers?

The law’s backers now threaten to reduce state aid to Toledo and other communities further to compensate for their collection of fines from the traffic cameras. That warning suggests petty vindictiveness rather than high principle.

Although he has yet to rule on the new law’s constitutionality, Judge Mandros said Toledo has “a high likelihood of success” in its legal challenge. He added that he expects the case to reach the Ohio Supreme Court, which previously has upheld local communities’ authority to operate traffic cameras — provided that fair procedures are in place for motorists to appeal citations.

When communities use the cameras properly, there is no need for state lawmakers and the governor to substitute their definition of best police practices. These officials may feel compelled to pander politically to scofflaws, and to demand an artificial statewide uniformity of local policies. Judges shouldn’t.

There is a growing Statehouse effort to nullify home rule, on issues ranging from law enforcement to environmental regulation, from hiring for local public works projects to the conduct of elections. It needs to end. Dumping the traffic-camera law would be a good start.

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