WARREN — Nearly one year after taking to the streets of Girard to nab speeders for breaking the law, the city’s speed camera was curbed Thursday after being found to have violated a few laws itself.
Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge John M. Stuard ruled in favor of a class action lawsuit by more than 1,500 car owners who argued that use of the camera was unconstitutional and violates due process laws.
‘‘This will be a foundation for other people to attack these cameras, at least in Ohio,’’ Girard Councilman Daniel Moadus Jr. said.
Moadus, before becoming a member of City Council, filed a taxpayer lawsuit against the city in August 2005, claiming that Girard was issuing tickets as civil infractions rather than criminal violations of state traffic law.
Stuard ordered the city to stop using its camera — unless it does so under the criminal laws of Ohio — and to stop collecting fines claimed under its civil ordinance against speeding.
‘‘The Legislature has authorized civil, noncriminal penalties to be set by municipalities for parking tickets. There has been no legislative action by the state to allow the extension of this concept to speeding,’’ Stuard’s ruling states.
Over the last months, the city, represented by attorneys from Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease of Akron, and the plaintiffs, represented by Girard attorney James Denney, prepared lengthy briefs for Stuard and met once to present oral arguments during the bench trial.
In January, Stuard allowed a class to join the suit, including anyone who received a ticket from the camera and didn’t pay it, who are contesting citations or who have yet to receive one in the mail.
Stuard explains in his precedent-setting ruling that state law takes precedence over a local ordinance if it is in conflict with the state statute, is an exercise of police power rather than self-government or if the statute is a general law.
And he ruled that the city failed each of those tests with its ordinance as it is plainly in conflict with state law, is an exercise of police power but also of self-government and affects speed limits that are general laws, the judgment reads.
Stuard ruled that Girard not only changed speeding violations from being criminal to civil infractions, but also was changing a previously set punishment for those crimes. Whereas traffic violations amount points to drivers’ licenses, Girard’s tickets simply are paid and forgotten like a parking ticket.
Melfi, who mandated that the camera only snap shots of drivers going 15 or more miles over the posted speed limit in an effort to not attack drivers but increase safety, said he had mixed feelings about Thursday’s decision.
‘‘I believe there is a place for technology in government. I believe there are savings in communities by utilizing the talents of police officers in other areas rather than just sitting and waiting for someone to come by speeding,’’ Melfi said, and then countered, ‘‘It was certainly disruptive to local government.’’
The camera was used primarily on U.S. Route 422, for eight hours a day, six days a week and yielded an obvious reduction in speeding along the thoroughfare.
But local antics, including signs being posted on the camera and it once being stolen, brought Girard into the limelight of office water cooler jokes.
Despite its merits, at one point council was ready to vote to take the camera off the streets to stop the bad publicity. Then, the president of provider company Traffipax of Maryland said it would no longer cover the legal fees accruing from the lawsuit if it no longer held a financial stake in the city.
Traffipax and the city split each $85 ticket, with $25 going to the company and $60 to Girard. Stuard ruled at the same time he allowed the class action suit that all money collected be placed in an escrow account — which now totals about $160,000. However, the judge has yet to address what is to become of those dollars.
Safety/Service Director Jerry Lambert said that if Stuard were to rule that the city could keep the money it’s made to date, it would be used just for what it was intended for — safety services.
‘‘That’s going to make a big difference for us. It’s going to have an impact on us, only because that money would be used in the Police Department,’’ he said.
The city slowly is making its way out of fiscal emergency but still faced with a possible subsidy to the Girard Municipal Court of more than $305,000 this year, Girard has yet to be able to afford to hire more officers for its beleaguered police department.
Though the camera money was never budgeted as an expected form of income, it certainly would have been nice to have — and even Moadus admitted that.
‘‘Had I lost as a private citizen in the case, I’d have been happy as a councilman,’’ Moadus said. ‘‘I’m sure we will miss it. That, to me, cannot override the importance of not trampling on people.’’