5/13/2013Ohio Appeals Court Forbids Traffic Stop Over Unpaid Parking Tickets
Appeals court in Ohio strikes down as unconstitutional a traffic stop based on unpaid parking tickets.
Since April last year, Dayton, Ohio has been trying to generate millions in additional revenue by towing vehicles said to have unpaid photo enforcement or parking tickets. The city's policy instructed police to pull over motorists and taking their car away until the alleged debt was paid. To keep a steady stream of $85 citations, Redflex Traffic Systems of Australia operates ten red light cameras and ten speed cameras in Dayton.
"We have a substantial number of people who continue to ignore our traffic laws and flout the system," Police Chief Richard Biehl explained in a press release announcing the policy on April 9, 2012. "Unfortunately, we sometimes have to tow vehicles to get the driver's attention and cooperation."
In a decision late last month, the state Court of Appeals said Chief Biehl and the city have been flouting the Constitution. Three days before that press release was issued, Officer Jeff Hiber pulled over a car he saw on Salem Avenue because a license plate check claimed its driver had three unpaid parking tickets.
In the course of the stop, passenger Edward L. Dukes, was caught with a small amount of crack cocaine. A Common Pleas Court judge upheld the stop as legitimate.
"Officers may stop and detain a motorist when observing any traffic offense or violation of the law and no independent 'reasonable articulable suspicion' of other criminal activity is required under Terry," the lower court judge ruled. "Here, Officer [Hiber] had authority to stop the car (and tow) pursuant to Dayton Police Department General Orders 3.02-6 Towing Motor Vehicles, 3.02-03 Parking Enforcement, and Executive Order 7-2012."
In Ohio, photo tickets and parking tickets have been made civil violations to minimize due process protections for ticket recipients, streamlining the collections for municipalities. The three-judge appellate panel pointed out that this arrangement also eliminates the criminal element from any charge that would justify a warrantless seizure of a driver.
"Hiber's testimony is clear that he initiated the traffic stop herein because the vehicle was on the police department's 'tow-in-list,'" Judge Mary E. Donovan wrote for the appellate court. "He did not observe a traffic violation or testify that he possessed a reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity when he stopped the car."
The court blasted the city of Dayton and state prosecutors for attempting to justify a traffic stop based merely on the April 2012 towing policy issued by Chief Biehl.
"We disagree with the state's assertion that the public's interest in obtaining the hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to the city for unpaid parking citations outweighed Dukes' privacy interest as a passenger in a vehicle on the tow list," Judge Donovan wrote. "Driving a motor vehicle while owing civil parking fines is not a crime. In other words, the protections guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment cannot be altered by means of an executive order issued to police department personnel."
The court reversed the conviction of Dukes. A copy of the decision is available in a 50k PDF file at the source link below.