Federal Judge Rules Defiance Can’t Collect Fines Levied Against CSX for Blocking Grade Crossings

A federal court has ruled in favor of CSX in a case in which the railroad sought to stop Defiance, Ohio, from collecting fines levied on it for blocking railroad grade crossings for more than five minutes.

In ruling that CSX did not have to pay more than $35,000 in pending fines, Judge James J. Carr of the United States District Court of Northern Ohio decided that federal law overrules an Ohio law that regulates grade crossing blockages.

Ohio law authorizes local law enforcement agencies to fine a railroad for blocking a grade crossing for more than five minutes with the fine being a maximum of $1,000 as a first-degree misdemeanor.

CSX had already paid $2,000 in fines in Defiance County, but balked at paying additional fines. In one extreme case, the railroad blocked a crossing for 15 hours.

Judge Carr issued a permanent injunction against the city’s law department, barring it from enforcing the state law against CSX, saying that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act preempts Ohio’s blocked grade crossing law.

The crossing obstructions occurred primarily while CSX crews were switching a General Motors casting plant.

In his opinion, Judge Carr wrote that the federal law gives exclusive jurisdiction over railroad switching operations to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

The case was unusual in that the attorney seeking to prosecute CSX agreed in court that federal law trumps state law when it comes to grade crossing regulation.

“As noted in the district court order, I instructed municipal law enforcement personnel not to issue citations for alleged violation of the statute many years ago and offered no opposition to CSX’s argument that enforcement of the statute is precluded,” said David Williams, the law director of Defiance.

“My only observation was that all prosecutions of this state statute have been commenced by the sheriff as an elected official of the state.  The city of Defiance has had nothing to do with it except to the extent that, as law director of the city in which the municipal court is sited, I am obliged to prosecute state cases arising in the unincorporated townships.”

Judge Carr rejected several of Williams’ arguments about who should have been parties to the case and whether Williams lacked authority to argue that the state law in question was constitutional.

Williams also unsuccessfully argued that CSX should have sued the state.

“I raised the procedural issue only because I thought it needed to be addressed by the court and do not object to or disagree with the court’s decision regarding it,” Williams said.

The case is CSX Transportation Inc. v. Williams, case number 3:16-cv-02242, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.

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