City Faces Class Action Over Traffic Cameras Could Be Forced to Refund Millions

Author: James F. McCarty Plain Dealer Reporter
Date: April 23, 2009 Section: National

Cleveland could be forced to refund millions of dollars in fines generated by traffic-enforcement cameras if a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of ticketed drivers is successful. The lawsuit contends that for the past four years the city illegally ticketed thousands of drivers of leased and rented cars even though the law governing the red-light and speeding cameras provided only for fining driver-owned cars.

"The city was well aware of the faults in their ordinance, yet they still continued to collect money they weren't entitled to," said Craig Bashein, an attorney specializing in class-action cases. "Now they are trying any desperate argument they can come up with to keep the money."

City Law Director Robert Triozzi acknowledged Wednesday that the city law enacted was flawed as originally written, but argued that ticketed drivers forfeited their rights to appeal when they paid their $100 fines.

And last month, the City Council plugged the loophole, adding provisions allowing for the ticketing of drivers of leased and rented cars, Triozzi said.

But the council couldn't repair the faulty law in time to defend a lawsuit that Beachwood lawyer Blake Dickson won in February before the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals.

Dickson, driving a leased Audi, beat two $100 speeding tickets issued by cameras by proving Cleveland's ordinance was illegal.

The city is appealing that case to the Ohio Supreme Court, Triozzi said.

The class-action lawsuit could cost the city $10 million, given the number of tickets issued and the number of leased vehicles on the roads, Bashein said.

Roughly a third of the cars in the area are leased, said Gary Adams, president of the Greater Cleveland Automobile Association. Three years ago, nearly half of the cars were leased, including more than 80 percent of all luxury cars.

The city began using the traffic cameras in late 2005 and has collected more than $25 million in fines. As of February, the city reported that its 41 stationary and mobile cameras had issued more than 108,000 tickets over the last 12 months.

Unlike tickets issued by police officers, which are criminal violations, camera-issued tickets are civil infractions and are contested at a hearing at the Parking Violations Bureau.

Bashein said the city acted intentionally when it devised an appeals process so onerous that only a quixotic attorney such as Dickson had the time, money and legal know-how to challenge it and win.

"To ask someone to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars to appeal a $100 fine is ridiculous, "Bashein said".It causes people to pay the fine rather than to go through a multiyear process."

Bashein and Dickson filed the suit in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, where Judge Richard McMonagle will have to determine if the case is worthy of class-action status.

Bashein said a class action is the only fair means of handling a case where the potential litigants number in the thousands.

"No expedient and appropriate remedy [is] available for the members of the class to resist these unlawful collection efforts," except through a class action, the suit says.

"Because the fines which are being collected are relatively small and the cost of challenging the citations. . . is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, irreparable harm is being suffered by each lessee who is photographed by the automatic enforcement cameras."

Plain Dealer reporter Henry Gomez contributed to this story. To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:jmccarty@plaind.com, 888-340-5284