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Judge finds Ohio village in contempt over cameras

CINCINNATI (AP) — A judge on Thursday found a southwest Ohio village in contempt of court, saying it violated his order against using traffic cameras to catch speeders.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman also wants the sheriff's department to confiscate the cameras in Elmwood Place. And he ordered the village and its camera vendor to reimburse all speeding fines collected since his March 7 ruling knocking down a village ordinance that allowed the camera use starting last September.

"Any money collected after my ruling is to be returned," Ruehlman said. To make sure the equipment doesn't run anymore in the meantime, he said, it will be seized and the village will have to pay any costs for it being taken down and stored.

The judge's bailiff said he made his ruling verbally in court Thursday, and that a written opinion was in the works. Calls seeking comment from Elmwood Place's police chief and the village's attorney weren't returned immediately.

The village appealed Ruehlman's earlier injunction, and has said it stopped issuing citations in the aftermath of his ruling.

However, he found that some $48,000 had been collected in fines after March 7 and ordered that money returned by the village and its vendor, Maryland-based Optotraffic. The company is one of several that provide and operate traffic cameras to U.S. municipalities in return for a percentage of revenues — in Elmwood's case, 40 percent.

The police chief said cameras were used for a study of speeding after the injunction, and village officials had said they were turned on at times to keep them in good operating condition pending the outcome of their appeal. But some citations apparently were sent out by the vendor in the first weeks after the injunction, according to court testimony, and the chief told people they didn't have to pay them.

"It doesn't matter," said Mike Allen, an attorney who sued the village over the tickets. "They violated Judge Ruehlman's order that the cameras be shut down."

Optotraffic didn't respond immediately to a request for comment.

Allen filed suit against Elmwood Place last year on behalf of 10 people, including business owners who said they were losing customers because of the speed-ticket blitz. He is seeking to have the lawsuit expanded to class-action, which could mean thousands of people seeking repayment of fines totaling an estimated $1.5 million.

The village of some 2,200 people neighboring Cincinnati has become a focal point for a debate common across the country about using traffic cameras. Thousands of people got ticketed within a few months, leading to the lawsuit.

Ruehlman's contempt order came one day after the Ohio House passed legislation that would ban using cameras for traffic enforcement in the state. The bill moves to the Senate for consideration.

Village officials say the cameras were meant to curtail a dangerous speeding problem on busy roads that connect with Interstate 75 and major employers. Critics said that at $105 a citation, they were meant to raise revenue.

The village had tried unsuccessfully to have Ruehlman removed from the case. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected arguments that the judge showed he was biased with his sharp wording, such as calling the camera use a "scam" and "sham" and comparing it to a con artist's card game.

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