Ohio: Speed Trap Village Runs Illegal Court
Brice, Ohio has canceled court hearings over concern the speed trap village violated the law.
The mayor of Brice, Ohio has canceled mayor's court hearings until further notice after lawmakers insisted that the village was in violation of a 2003 statute designed to prevent speed traps.
In Ohio, 333 towns use mayor's courts to process traffic tickets and minor infractions with the mayor able both to decide guilt or innocence in individual cases and to decide how to spend the fine money that is collected. Ohio's top ten most successful mayors together brought in $2.3 million for their budget in 2004 with this system. Louisiana is the only other state to use mayor's courts.
Brice raised 40 percent of the village budget by issuing tickets at a rate of 7.6 citations per resident. Ohio law says that no village of less than 100 residents, as defined by U.S. census figures, may operate a mayor's court. Brice has 70 residents. Lawmakers are now considering raising the minimum figure.
"It doesn't make sense to have mayor's courts for villages that small," [Rep. Larry] Wolpert, [R-Hilliard] said. "Clearly, when you have seven violations per resident, that ratio is very high." Rep. Larry L. Flowers, R-Canal Winchester, whose district includes Brice, said he would support increasing the limit to 200. Source: SHADES OF NEW ROME? (Columbus Dispatch (OH), 5/4/2006)
New Rome is an unincorporated community in eastern Prairie Township, Franklin County, Ohio, United States, located on the west side of the Columbus Metropolitan Area. It was originally incorporated as a village in 1947, occupying little more than a three-block stretch of West Broad Street (U.S. Route 40), and dissolved in 2004. The population was 60 at the 2000 census.
New Rome achieved infamy due to its traffic and speed trap, which received national media attention, and the internal corruption of its local government. In 2004, the village was ordered legally dissolved by a Franklin County Court of Common Pleas judge, and its residents, land and assets were made part of Prairie Township.
New Rome speed trap
New Rome police had systematically taken advantage of the village's sudden drop (from 45 mph to 35 mph) in posted speed along the busy thoroughfare of West Broad Street to pull over thousands of motorists, raising nearly $400,000 gross annually from speeding tickets but primarily vehicle citations including trivial offenses such as dusty taillights and improperly tinted windows. Nearly all of this money was funneled back into the police force, which almost exclusively dealt with traffic violations and so essentially existed to fund itself. The 60-resident village had as many as 14 policemen (all part-time), with the Village Council wanting more.<sup id="cite_ref-2" class="reference"></sup>
Many local business owners complained that customers were being driven away by the village's reputation, and there were many reports of arbitrary and even abusive conduct at the hands of the New Rome police, who even ventured into surrounding jurisdictions to arrest people over unpaid traffic tickets.
The Ohio Department of Transportation eventually decided that New Rome's lower speed limit was inconsistent with state law guidelines. The New Rome police force itself was suspended by the village in 2003 when its chief resigned, shortly after the village's mayor's court was abolished by the state, and so the speed trap came to an end.
Theft and misuse of funds and equipment
New Rome also had longstanding problems with internal corruption. Several past New Rome officials (including a past clerk) were caught stealing thousands of dollars in public funds; others (including a past mayor) resigned after misuse of village credit cards came to light. $120,000 was stolen from New Rome over the course of a decade according to the Ohio State Auditor, who also concluded that the village's poor accounting practices made continuing theft likely. Mayor's court records were also reported to have been destroyed and falsified. A federal grant to the village in 1996 to fight purportedly rising burglaries, vandalism, and gang activity was instead used for traffic enforcement. In 2003, the New Rome police had their access to a State Highway Patrol driver identification database revoked because of misuse against the political rival of a councilmember.
In 2002, after the state-certified election of a new reformist mayor by New Rome residents, the unelected Village Council refused to recognize him and claimed that the old mayor (to whom most of the Council were related) was still in office. The controversy soon broadened into a question of who was even legally on the Council, as none of the councilmember appointments had been registered with the state as required by law. New Rome had typically not even bothered with elections in the past, and many officials, including past mayors, had simply "reappointed themselves." The positions of half of the sitting councilmembers were eventually invalidated by the Franklin County prosecutor because they were not legally appointed, but village positions continued to be claimed by those without the legal right to do so.
After further investigation of New Rome's history of misconduct, the Ohio Attorney General, on the recommendation of the Ohio State Auditor, concluded that it should be dissolved, though its residents had voted against dissolution in 2003. At the Attorney General's urging, the Ohio General Assembly passed a law later that year primarily targeted at New Rome, that allowed for the dissolution of a village that had fewer than 150 people, provided little or no public services and had a pattern of wrongdoing or incompetence. On December 1, 2003, the Attorney General filed suit for New Rome's dissolution in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. The complaint cited New Rome for 23 counts of failure to follow state election requirements since 1988, as well as for its failure to file a tax budget.
The village officials did not contest these allegations, but instead challenged the dissolution statute itself as contrary to the home rule provisions of the Ohio Constitution. Judge David Cain upheld the constitutionality of the statute and granted summary judgment to the State of Ohio on July 30, 2004. "When the electorate allows key offices to go vacant for unreasonable amounts of time and allows other conditions...to cause ruin and decay," Cain wrote, "it can easily be inferred that this small group of local citizens has abandoned any right it had to operate a local government unit. The corporate powers have already been surrendered. The body is already dead. The statute merely provides for a decent burial." Judge Cain granted the order to formally dissolve New Rome on August 9, 2004, and also ordered the clearing of all unpaid traffic tickets and all drivers licenses suspended by the village. No appeal was filed by the September 9 deadline, and so New Rome was irrevocably absorbed into Prairie Township.