A tiny village in America has been ordered to pay back more than $3m in speeding fines it collected from motorists – after its claims of "sovereign immunity" were laughed out of court.
The town of New Miami, an hour's drive from Cincinnati, Ohio, boasts a population of just 2,200, and an annual budget of $1.75m. That budget jumped by $1m in 2013 – from $1.5m to $2.5m – when it struck a deal with speed camera biz Optotraffic.
Optotraffic supplied its automated speed cams free of charge, and in return got a 40 per cent cut of traffic fines. Every time someone drove past one of two cameras located on a stretch of Highway 127 – speed limit 35 MPH – at 46 MPH or higher, they got a bill in the post for $95. It was a money-spinner with more than 1,000 tickets issued in the first week alone.
Unsurprisingly, the villagers were not too excited about the new cameras. While the cops claimed the equipment was put there for safety reasons, the road is not known as a dangerous spot. As details emerged about the deal the council had struck, frustration turned to anger. On top of which, nearly half of those who challenged their tickets were let off the fine – raising questions about whether the cameras were accurately assessing speed.
And even though the village then spent much of the new money on important new developments – such as $600,000 on a sanitation project – it also splurged $210,000 on new vehicles – including two new Dodge Chargers and a Dodge Ram for the local plod, and two other vehicles. Oh, and the council treasurer and clerk doubled their salaries.
This being America, of course, the solution to this problem wasn't in raising taxes to reduce the reliance on speed cameras, or increasing the speed limit, or getting rid of council members, or raising the speed at which people were fined: nope, it was in lawyers and the Constitution.
Villagers sued claiming that the speed cameras were unconstitutional because they bypassed the law courts and didn’t give them due process. And, amazingly, they won. It helped that Optotraffic had already lost almost the exact same case in the exact same way at another small village 45 minutes away.
"What really bugs me is that it makes you inform on your spouse," one local attorney told the Journal-News under the logic that if his wife was driving a car registered in his name and got a speeding ticket, he would have to tell the police it was actually her. "It's Big Brother, it's terrible."
Having won their case about the unconstitutionality of the cameras, the villagers then hit the council where it really hurts: their pocketbooks.
They sued for all the money the council had made from the cameras - $3m – and they won, with a judge ordering the government body to hand it over. Having spunked all the cash on new cars, the council appealed using the argument that it had "sovereign immunity" and couldn't be forced to hand back the dosh, spending another $100,000 fighting the case.
An Ohio appeals court judgment, handed down at the end of last month, somehow translates what was no doubt a big bellow of laughter into extraordinarily dull and dense legal back-and-forth. But the upshot was the same: hand over the cash, you chumps.
It’s now been five years since the dispute kicked off, the last four of which has been spent in court racking up lawyers' fees. The council said it doesn't have enough money and needs 10 years to pay it back. The locals want their cash now. And the cops? The cops now have to catch any speeders in person, using a hand-held device.
Presumably at some point everyone in New Miami will realize that they are only costing themselves money and maybe the council should raise property taxes slightly to cover the work it needs to do.
Don’t be ridiculous, this is America, dammit. ®