Debate focuses on Girard speed camera
Sunday, January 22, 2006

The great camera debate brought lively discussion about fines and fairness.

By SEAN BARRON

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

YOUNGSTOWN — Lola Simmons has no problem with a camera being posted to catch drivers going too fast through Girard.

Simmons' contention lies with the way she says the device sometimes targets the wrong person.

"Any place else, [the violator] is the person ticketed," she said.

Simmons, of Austintown, said that her son borrowed her vehicle in November and that the camera caught him exceeding a speed limit in the city. However, since the car was in her name, Simmons was the one to receive the $85 ticket.

"There's no human element to ticket the real violators," she said. "Due process is not available."

Simmons was among 60 to 70 people who attended Saturday's debate on the Girard traffic cameras at Cedar's Cafe, 23 N. Hazel St. The forum, sponsored by Vindy.com and moderated by Vindicator columnist Bertram de Souza, pitted Canfield lawyer David Betras, who opposes the camera, against Youngstown resident Mike Nagel, who supports the use of the device.

Took the challenge

Nagel said he logged onto de Souza's new blog on Vindy.com — Stirfry — and read some of Betras' comments pertaining to a speeding ticket the attorney received. On the site, Betras challenged users to debate the camera issue. Nagel accepted and conducted research on the effectiveness of traffic cameras, he said.

Betras kicked off the 11/2-hour debate by citing several examples of what he said was Girard's rationale for using the device and why those justifications were wrong.

Betras said that the city uses its home rule charter to validate exercising certain police powers and that the camera benefits the "health and safety of its citizens."

Nevertheless, he pointed out, two state laws give the Ohio Supreme Court the power to create traffic rules to be followed in all jurisdictions.

Rules relating to the camera also lack uniformity and make misdemeanor traffic offenses civil matters, thus "decriminalizing" repeat violations, Betras added. As a result, chronic speeders face only flat fines and have no fear of court action, he said.

Can't contest fine

The setup also deprives people of the opportunity to contest the fine, he said, adding that drivers' right to face their accuser and "cross-examine" him is stripped.

"It's another way they're eroding your rights; they're taking away your right to go to court," said Betras, whose class-action lawsuit against the city is pending in the 11th District Court of Appeals. "How do you argue with a camera?"

Betras contended that in addition to violating due process, the driving force behind the cameras is money.

"These cameras are a bad idea ... and on a bigger scale, it's just Big Brother," he said.

Not true, countered Nagel, who owns Just Sons Asphalt of New Middletown. Nagel said that 31 percent of traffic fatalities in the United States, or about 15,000 deaths, are caused by speeding, costing the nation about $30 billion annually.

Nagel said he agrees that points should be added to speeders' licenses, but added that drivers should be responsible for whom they allow to use their vehicles.

The number of tickets being issued in Girard since the cameras were installed in July has been decreasing, which shows the program is working, he said.

Nagel added that he sees nothing wrong with the devices' generating revenue for the city. Traffic cameras have been successfully used to deter reckless driving and accidents in other U.S. cities, and lawsuits like the one Betras filed have been overturned in several states, he noted.

Mayor's input

Girard Mayor James Melfi defended the cameras, saying that it was city council's idea to implement the ordinance after receiving community input. The devices have made his city safer because they allow more police officers to fight crime in various neighborhoods, conduct investigations and be used in schools, Melfi pointed out.

The mayor said that his only role was to set the camera. Motorists have to go at least 15 mph over the speed limit to be issued a ticket, Melfi added.

During a question-and-answer session, Betras said that properly adjudicating cases is the real issue. The way the cameras are set up requires drivers to prove their innocence instead of the other way around, he said.

Girard gets $60 for every $85 citation issued; Traffipax, the Columbia, Md.-based company that installed and operates the devices, receives the remaining $25.

However, on Friday, Judge John Stuard of Trumbull County Common Pleas Court ordered that fines collected from the date of his ruling be placed into an interest-bearing escrow account until the issues surrounding the legality of the camera have been settled. Judge Stuard made the ruling during a hearing on a lawsuit filed by Councilman Daniel Moadus to stop the camera's use. Girard is free to do as it wishes with money generated before his order, the judge said.