Most of us, at one time or another, upon witnessing some act of offensive conduct on the part of a fellow citizen, have remarked, “there ought to be a law against that. How does he get away with that?” The answer is that only acts which are specifically described in a state statute or a municipal ordinance are ones for which the offending person is subject to the penalties of a prosecution. The Ohio Revised Code has numbered statutes describing all conduct subject to state prosecution, and all municipalities have ordinances subject to prosecution in municipal or mayor’s courts. If there is no such statute or ordinance, there is no offense. Or at least, that’s the way it is supposed to be.
Mayor’s Courts were once quite prevalent in Ohio. They were presided over by the village mayor who, with very rare exception, had no legal training. The municipalities loved them because the fines and court costs imposed by the mayor went into the city coffers. It was easy money, which birthed the “speed traps” of yore and the cameras of today. But, remember that to have a mayor’s court prosecution for any traffic violation, there must be a specific municipal ordinance proscribing the conduct.
Back in the days when I was beginning in the prosecuting business, there was a nationally famed criminal law professor at Northwestern University who offered a one-week seminar in Chicago titled “A Short Course for Prosecuting Attorneys,” which included instruction and procedures on misdemeanor and traffic prosecutions. I attended this course, courtesy of the City of Lima, who employed me. Also attending was Mack Bellinger who was the city attorney for the Village of Bluffton and, thus the prosecutor in the village mayor’s court.
One of the “handouts” at the course was a blue paperback publication of about 100 pages titled “Model Municipal Traffic Ordinances.” It wasn’t really of any use to me since the City of Lima had all of the city traffic laws codified, meaning with numbers assigned to each offense. I put it away somewhere and really thought no more about the “blue book.” For those whose towns had no codified traffic ordinances, they could select which of those they wanted to use and pass ordinances adopting them. As time went on, I moved on to the county prosecuting office where we had no traffic cases.
Those of you who may have gotten a traffic ticket in the past 10 to 15 years for speeding, stop sign violation or other traffic offense, will have gotten from the officer a citation on which information about you, your vehicle, its ownership, and other information is recorded. Also recorded is the name and number of the Ohio statute or municipal ordinance you are accused of violating. All of that is done for specific purposes, including that the accused and his attorney can go to the municipal ordinances and know what the law says.
Way back when, all of that formality, particularly in village traffic enforcement, was not considered particularly necessary. Citations for stop sign violations or other minor traffic offenses were quite informal, although they did state the number of the village traffic ordinance the driver was accused of violating. Keep all of that in mind when I tell you of the situation which was brought to my attention with a phone call I received from a lawyer in town who called me late on a drowsy summer Friday afternoon.
I was ready to go home, the phone rang, and a local lawyer called me and said, “Larry, I know this isn’t in your sphere of responsibility, but I think you will know the answer and can help me.” He said, “I have a client who got cited up in Bluffton for running a stop sign and he swears he didn’t do it and wants to fight it in the Mayor’s Court.” So, I said, “that’s right down your alley isn’t it.”
The only problem he said was that “he is accused of violating a Bluffton City Ordinance and I can’t find the section in the Bluffton Ordinance book.” I thought that was strange so I had him bring the citation to the office, and we looked it over together. Sure enough, we could not find a Bluffton City Ordinance or any other traffic offense ordinances.
I decided to meet the matter head on and I called Mack Bellinger, the Bluffton Law Director and said, “Mack, I have a lawyer here and we are trying to locate the section of the Bluffton City Ordinances which make running a stop sign illegal. We have been through the Ordinance Book and can’t find any traffic offenses with these numbers.”
He didn’t hesitate long and said, “Oh, our traffic laws are not in a regular printed ordinance book, we just use the “blue book.” What’s that? He said, “don’t you remember the blue book we got when we attended the short course for municipal court prosecutors at Northwestern.” It dawned on me what he meant. “Mack,” I said, “those were just samples that could be helpful in drawing your own municipal traffic laws. As such, they are not the law, just go-bys. Your council has to adopt them as village ordinances. You don’t have any traffic ordinances making anything illegal.”
Did the village council ever adopt them into village ordinances? “No,” he said. “Well, Mack,” I said, “you have been charging people, convicting them, and fining them for violating ordinances that have never existed.” After a long silence, he said the he had to agree with me.
Shortly after this conversation, I saw an article in the Bluftton paper that the city council had adopted a new set of city traffic ordinances and that the mayor had dismissed a number of pending traffic cases. Since the claimed illegal activity had happened before the effective date of the new ordinance, Bluffton was estopped by the ban on ex post facto law from prosecuting them under the newly adopted ordinances.
Moral of the Story: The law is the law, if there is one.
Lawrence S. Huffman is an attorney in Lima and a guest columnist in The Lima News.