Speeding ticket goes to Supreme Court

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A man is taking his fight over a $100 speeding ticket to the Ohio Supreme Court, where he’ll argue the ticket is invalid because the police officer who made the traffic stop left a box unchecked.

Legal battles over speeding tickets rarely make it to the state’s highest court, but justices agreed to hear the case last week to settle conflicting rulings from separate appeals courts.

Gary Kieffaber, a computer systems analyst from northeast Ohio, has spent two years and $400 in court costs contesting the ticket. A decision in his favor could force police officers to be more thorough in their paperwork and perhaps lead to more legal challenges of traffic violations, some attorneys say.

A ruling isn’t expected for several months.

Kieffaber, 52, doesn’t dispute that he was driving fast through Bellville, a village about 50 miles northeast of Columbus, on Feb. 13, 2005. A police radar detector recorded him at 41 mph on a residential stretch of Main Street where the posted limit is 25 mph, according to court papers. A municipal judge found him guilty.

Acting as his own attorney, Kieffaber argued on appeal that the case should have been dismissed because the officer did not check a box on the ticket indicating whether the speed was “unsafe for conditions” – a broad term meant to indicate bad weather, heavy traffic or other circumstances when the ticket was issued.

“I can’t be convicted based on a document that doesn’t support or explain all the elements of the charge,” said Kieffaber, who – as a subplot – is receiving advice from his brother-in-law, a county judge. “They failed to show that my speed was improper.”

The 5th Ohio District Court of Appeals in Mansfield disagreed, upholding the conviction by a 2-to-1 vote.

Using a LexisNexis database search, Kieffaber said he dug up a similar case out of Erie County, where an appeals court tossed out a speeding conviction because neither the “unsafe for conditions” box nor the “over limits” boxed was checked. Kieffaber, of Spencer, is using that case as a major basis for his appeal to the Supreme Court.

“It seems picky, but he appears to be raising an interesting constitutional issue,” said David Goldberger, a law professor at Ohio State University. “If you are charged with an offense, the state has the duty to give you notice of everything that establishes the offense.”

The Supreme Court could decide the case on technical grounds – does it matter that some boxes on tickets go unchecked? – or on the underlying constitutional issue, Goldberger said. “And I have no idea which way the court is inclined to go,” he said.

John Studenmund, an attorney representing Bellville, said Kieffaber is being unreasonable. The officer who issued the ticket was thorough, writing down the speed violation – 41 in a 25 mph zone – and filling out 30 areas of the complaint form, including making notes about light rain and moderate traffic.

“He (Kieffaber) was speeding, and that’s all that matters,” Studenmund said.
Police officers are instructed to fill out as much information on traffic tickets as possible, mainly to help them recall the case if their testimony is required at court, said Lt. Tony Bradshaw, a spokesman with the State Highway Patrol, which issued 324,000 speeding tickets in 2006. State and local law enforcement agencies across Ohio use the same standardized ticket, he said.

“I’m not aware of any regulation that says every box must be checked,” Bradshaw said.

If Kieffaber wins, the ruling would mean that police officers can’t be sloppy, said Joe Westmeyer III, a Toledo attorney who specializes in traffic law. Incomplete tickets could call into question an officer’s credibility when challenged in court, he said.

Attorney Charles Rittgers of Lebanon disagreed. “The word would go out to officers to be more careful with their paperwork, and that would be it. We’re only talking about a box that needs to be checked,” he said.

Kieffaber, who will continue to represent himself and make his own oral arguments before the Supreme Court, said he’s proud to have taken the case so far. His brother-in-law, Tuscarawas County Common Pleas Judge Edward O’Farrell, said he intends to be in the courtroom to show support.

“Gary is a smart guy, an independent thinker,” said O’Farrell, adding that his role in the case has been limited to helping Kieffaber locate research materials and answering procedural questions. “He’s someone who acts on principle, and in this case he feels he wasn’t properly charged.”