Ohio courts knocking down construction-zone enforcement penalties
Newspaper's analysis shows most fines reduced or dismissed for those who go to court; Lt. says officers feel they are being second-guessed by courts, prosecutors
By Robert Vitale
The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio — If the news stories and public-service announcements haven't gotten through to you, the police officers pointing radar guns from Downtown overpasses usually get the point across.
Ohio threatens motorists with doubled fines if they're caught speeding through road-construction zones, and the state has handed out more than $400,000 in grants this year to police agencies statewide to beef up enforcement.
But in Franklin County, that message can get diluted after officers tear the tickets off their pads.
Nearly three in 10 motorists stopped for speeding in local highway construction zones since January 2011 paid less than the standard fine for their crimes, The Dispatch has found. That's because showing up in court almost always pays off.
A review of more than 4,500 tickets issued in work zones around the I-71/670 interchange and on I-270 found that more than 93 percent of people who went to court instead of mailing a check or entering a credit-card number online walked away with reduced or dismissed fines.
Court officials say such statistics are a real-world glimpse at how the judicial system operates, not only for construction-zone speeding tickets but for all kinds of minor traffic offenses.
For example, prosecutors sometimes drop speeding charges in order to win guilty pleas on drunken-driving or other, more-serious crimes. Sometimes, they offer to reduce fines to avoid time-consuming trials.
And other times, the police officers who write the tickets don't show up in court, forcing prosecutors to dismiss tickets.
Judges say they often juggle dozens of cases a day and rely on prosecutors to make the call.
"It's not in the system's interest" for everyone to know the potential financial benefit of taking speeding tickets to court, said Franklin County Municipal Judge Ted Barrows, a former city prosecutor.
"But it's the truth."
The Dispatch review found:
- • People going as fast as 83 mph in 45-mph construction zones had their fines reduced as much as $150.
- • More than 210 people whose tickets were reduced from the maximum possible fine were driving at least 20 mph over the speed limit.
- • More than 650 drivers' fines were lowered by at least $50, and more than 300 speeding tickets were dismissed altogether.
- • Drivers' fines were lowered by a total of about $150,000, although many still paid court costs. The total amount of potential fines was more than $600,000.
Lara Baker-Morrish, chief prosecutor in the office of City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr., said the numbers don't represent breaks on tickets but rather the spots within a range of potential fines that prosecutors seek and judges impose.
Standard speeding fines of $35, $55 and $75 — doubled in construction zones to $70, $110 and $150, based on how far over the speed limit drivers are clocked — are the maximums allowed.
Most people pay their tickets in full in the mail or online. But for those who take them to court, the fines often are reduced. There is more at play, however, than overburdened court schedules, Baker-Morrish said.
Speeders jailed on outstanding criminal warrants have their fines reduced or dismissed because every night behind bars counts toward penalties owed. And indigent drivers have a right to ask the court to forgive their fines.
Some people simply want their day in court. Many people believe they did nothing wrong.
"Most of the drivers who get stopped say, 'Yeah, I did it,' Baker-Morrish said. "But they have a right to make us prove our case."
In April, Ohio Department of Transportation officials placed 17 dented orange barrels in a parking lot on the edge of the I-71/670 construction zone.
They said each one represented a person killed last year in Ohio work-zone crashes.
Their message at the start of National Work Zone Safety Week: It's every driver's responsibility to slow down around road-construction projects, for the sake of those working and those passing through.
During the past decade, 161 people have been killed in highway work zones in Ohio, and more than 14,000 have been injured. Nationwide, the death toll from construction-zone crashes was 9,198 over the past decade. "It's as much a danger to the motorist as it is to the worker," said Brad Sant, senior vice president for safety and education at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
"How would a judge feel if his dais was out in the work zone and traffic was whizzing by at 70 mph? It is a scary place."
Columbus Police Lt. Brent Mull, who heads the division's traffic unit, said the tight quarters in construction zones mean that even minor crashes result in outsize disruptions for motorists.
Work-zone crashes also have a way of escalating in seriousness, Mull said. Secondary collisions occur at 1 in 3 crash scenes, according to a 2010 study by the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, a group whose research aims to reduce crash injuries.
The Ohio Department of Public Safety gave $50,000 to Columbus police in April to assign more officers in the I-71/670 construction zone. More than $400,000 in grants was awarded statewide to help police, deputy sheriffs and state troopers monitor speeding in work zones.
Mull said the grant allowed Columbus to put as many as four extra officers in the I-71/670 zone for four hours every day.
Under normal conditions, one or two officers are assigned at all times to the Columbus stretches of I-71 and I-670. They stop speeders when they're not responding to crashes and helping stranded motorists.
The extra officers often worked in teams. Some aimed radar guns from overpasses and radioed to partners below who pulled over drivers and wrote the tickets.
The grants, which expired on Nov. 1, led to a huge increase in construction-zone speeding tickets.
Fewer than 1,000 tickets were written in Franklin County construction zones in the 16 months from January 2011 to April 2012. More than 3,700 were issued during the six months of extra patrols.
A busy docket
Franklin County's 15 Municipal Court judges handle 100,000 traffic and 50,000 criminal cases each year.
A traffic case can take less than a minute to hear.
For example, on Sept. 12, it took Judge Barrows 16 seconds to dismiss a $110 fine and speeding ticket that had been issued on southbound I-71 near the I-670 interchange.
The case file indicated that police clocked the man at 57 mph in the 45 mph zone. It also showed that the officer who wrote the ticket and was subpoenaed did not appear in court.
Reducing or dropping speeding fines keeps the system moving along, Barrows said. If every speeding ticket or minor misdemeanor case went to trial, he said, dockets would back up quickly.
"Everyone in government has some limitation on their resources," he said.
Prosecutors and judges might sign off on reducing or dismissing fines, Barrows said, adding that state and local laws rank speeding in the lowest of five classes of misdemeanor crimes.
Even with fines doubled in construction zones, people stopped for speeding are still among the least-sanctioned lawbreakers.
"The (Columbus) City Council and the General Assembly have said speeding is a minor misdemeanor," Barrows said. "The legislative branch has determined which cases are a priority, and the prosecutors react to that."
Dismissed and diluted
Police and construction-industry officials say the courts are sending a dangerous message by reducing and dismissing work-zone speeding tickets just because someone shows up Downtown to contest them.
A 2006 study by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association found that drivers slow down an average of 3 mph when construction-zone speed-limit signs are present.
If police are in the area, they slow down 10 mph or more.
"It's a frustration if all that effort is taking place and the courts are kind of side-stepping it," the association's Sant said.
Mull said police feel second-guessed by prosecutors and judges.
"Our guys take a lot of pride in their work," he said. "They just don't see that their work is valued."
Baker-Morrish said that's not the case.
"Our roles are different. The decision I have to make is different," she said. "Our job is not what did they do, our job is what can I prove?"
Both Baker-Morrish and Barrows said they don't think that fine reductions and dismissals undermine enforcement. They said drivers would rather avoid a ticket than go to court.
Mull, however, said drivers know how to play the system to their advantage.
"They don't have to go to the casino to gamble," he said. "They can go right down to the courthouse."
Dispatch reporter Jennifer Smith Richards contributed to this story.