CSX Challenges Ohio Road-Obstruction Law

     CLEVELAND (CN) — Railroad giant CSX Transportation claims in a federal lawsuit that it cannot be fined by a small city in northwest Ohio for routinely blocking a local road.
     In a complaint filed Sept. 8 in Northern Ohio Federal Court, CSX argues that an Ohio statute prohibiting railroad companies from obstructing public roads with stationary railroad cars for more than five minutes is preempted by federal law.
     City of Defiance Law Director David H. Williams, the only named defendant in the lawsuit, said in a phone interview with Courthouse News that there are currently over 30 first-degree misdemeanors pending against CSX in Defiance Municipal Court, with possible fines totaling over $35,000.
     “[CSX] has been continuing the cases for several months while they decided if they wanted to commence a federal action to test the constitutionality of the Ohio statute,” Williams said.
     The statute at issue, Ohio Revised Code 5589.21, states: “No railroad company shall obstruct, or permit, or cause to be obstructed a public street, road, or highway, by permitting a railroad car, locomotive, or other obstruction to remain upon or across it for longer than five minutes, to the hindrance or inconvenience of travelers or a person passing along or upon such street, road, or highway.”
     The law does not apply to continuously moving trains or trains that stop for circumstances beyond the control of the railroad company, but it does apply to trains engaged in switching, loading or unloading operations, which are precisely the reasons for the delays at issue in CSX’s case.
     CSX maintains a switching yard in Defiance near a General Motors manufacturing plant, and when it performs switching operations at the yard, a railroad crossing on nearby Hire Road is frequently blocked for lengthy periods that can last up to 60 minutes or more, according to complaints local citizens have filed with the Defiance County Sheriff’s Office.
     Williams says CSX has historically plea-bargained with city prosecutors in municipal court over previous violations, pleading guilty to some charges on the condition that others would be dismissed.
     He estimated that CSX had paid five or six $1,000 fines over the past three years.
     Those arrangements were negotiated by prosecutors who worked under Williams’ general supervision, but had authority to plea-bargain without his knowledge.
     But when Defiance County Commissioners concerned about long delays at the Hire Road crossing encouraged local citizens to lodge their complaints with the Defiance County Sheriff’s Office, city prosecutors began getting swamped with cases against CSX and asked Williams how they should handle them.
     CSX pushed for plea deals similar to the ones it had reached with city prosecutors in the past, but Williams, having been made aware of the issue, resisted.
     The railroad giant argued in its complaint that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, the Federal Railroad Safety Act and the Commerce Clause preempt states from enacting laws that interfere with railroad operations, railroad safety or interstate commerce.
     As CSX’s lawsuit points out and Williams willingly concedes, most federal circuits that have considered so-called “anti-stopping” statutes in other states determined that they were, in fact, invalid.
     Williams also admits that the inconvenience to the public in this case is easily manageable because there are two alternate routes that Defiance citizens can use to get from one side of CSX’s railroad to the other in the event that the Hire Road crossing is blocked for any extended period of time.
     Nevertheless, Williams refuses to plea-bargain with CSX as his own prosecutors and other prosecutors throughout Ohio have done in the past, due primarily to the mandatory fines set forth in the Ohio statute.
     “I don’t know what the district court is going to make of it,” Williams said. “I’ve just taken the position that the statute is either valid, in which case I’m duty-bound to enforce it as it’s written, or it’s invalid, in which case I’m duty-bound not to enforce it at all.”
     He continued, “It’s really a question that the Sixth Circuit hasn’t been called on to address yet. Compromising doesn’t seem like the right thing to be doing here because no matter how we adjust it, we’re doing something wrong. We’re either enforcing a law that shouldn’t be enforced, or we’re not enforcing it the way the Legislature says we’re supposed to. So let’s get it clarified.”
     Williams said he plans to notify the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to give them an opportunity to intervene on the state’s behalf.
     CSX did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The company seeks an injunction against Ohio Revised Code 5589.21, and it is represented by James Carnes of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick LLP in Toledo, Ohio.

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