Some Amish refusing to comply with buggy light law
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — A new law requiring Amish buggies and other animal-drawn vehicles to be equipped with flashing yellow lights took effect in August, and cases of non-compliance already have come before courts in Belmont and Monroe counties.
The legislation – Ohio House Bill 30 — was written in an effort to prevent traffic crashes involving buggies. But some Amish communities are objecting, reportedly on the grounds that the law infringes on their religious liberties.
Monroe County Prosecutor James Peters said a group of about a half-dozen Amish went before County Court Judge Jason Yoss last Wednesday, having been cited for failure to comply.
Charges were temporarily dropped while the group and county officials worked out the situation.
There was a meeting Monday between members of the Amish community around Jerusalem and Peters and Sheriff Charles Black about the prospect of complying with the law. Peters said the meeting was closed to the public and the results were inconclusive.
“We did meet with about 10 members of … the elders of the local Swartzentruber Amish community, and they kind of discussed their position that their religious beliefs do somewhat prevent them from having the flashing amber light,” he said.
“It sounded like not only do they have to run it through their local community, but their local community as part of the larger Swartzentruber sect that involves some people in the northern part of the state.
“It sounds like they are going to attempt to speak with their entire community and determine how they would like to proceed. In the meantime, since it sounds like there won’t be any compliance with the law in the immediate future, we basically informed them that the sheriff’s department will begin reissuing citations to those that are not in compliance and are found on the roadway, and then we will just prosecute them on our end as we would any other offense.”
Peters said the Amish gave no indication when they might be able to expect a community policy on compliance.
“It didn’t sound like it was going to happen in the immediate future,” Peters said. “We don’t really have any choice but to enforce the law that’s in place now.”
Peters said the law took effect at the end of August and law enforcement and prosecutors tried to give the Amish communities time to come into compliance before citations were issued. He said at first only verbal warnings were issued.
He said violations of the law are a minor misdemeanor. The maximum possible fine is $150 plus court costs, usually about $88. Peters said he does not believe repeat violations would elevate it to a more severe offense.
Peters said there have been a few local cases of crashes involving motor vehicles and Amish buggies.
“I can’t say how many we’ve had over the years, but we have had events in Monroe County,” Peters noted. “I do think with the Amish buggies it is a visibility issue at this point, but just as important as the visibility of the Amish buggy, I also see a lot of individuals passing the Amish buggies … in locations that are not called for. There’s individuals being impatient and are also causing inherent safety risks … but absolutely the lighting does help. There are a few people that are complying in the area, and the amber flashing light certainly does draw your attention.”
He said most of the noncompliance issues seem to be occurring in the northern part of Monroe County, but some area Amish have been complying.
“We’re not going to single them out. We’re not going to target them, just like any other individual who operates on the roadway. If we come across it and there’s a violation, we will address it,” Black said.
The sheriff said there are different Amish congregations in the county, and the group around the Calais area is in compliance.
“Their buggies are lit up like Christmas trees. They’ve got front lights, rear lights and the required flashing amber light, the ones that I’ve seen. The group over toward Jerusalem, they are the group that have not complied yet and have been issued citations. In conjunction with the (Ohio State) Highway Patrol, they’ve issued citations across the county line into Belmont County,” Black said.
“I’m not well-versed on their particular dynamics of how they live, but my understanding is there are certain groups that have certain beliefs, that they can do certain things and other ones that don’t,” Black said.
Resistance to the law has also occurred in Belmont County. Two weeks ago, other conservative Amish from the Somerton area went before Judge Eric Costine in Western Division County Court after similar violations.
On Sept. 4 and Sept. 5, a dozen people were ticketed in the area of Ohio 800 and Ohio 26 around Somerton. A trial took place last Thursday in which they were convicted, fined $5 plus court costs of $95. Costine informed them if they were in compliance by Dec. 1, the fine and costs would be waived.
Andrew Stutzman was the group’s spokesman. Belmont County Assistant Prosecutor Joseph Vavra, who prosecuted the case, said the Amish residents objected to the law based on their religious beliefs.
“That was essentially the defense. There were 12 separate cases of 12 individuals who were all charged around the same time and they all came up for trial together. They were consolidated for trial,” Vavra said. “The main spokesperson for all 12 was the bishop, and that was essentially the defense, that … to comply with this law would be a violation of their religious beliefs. … The judge did give them the opportunity to comply with the law.”
Vavra added that their options include taking the matter to the court of appeals or approaching lawmakers and asking them to change or modify the law.
Costine said he believes these are also members of the Swartzentruber Amish.
Harrison County Sheriff Joe Myers said there have been no issues in his jurisdiction.
“We haven’t seen any issues in Harrison County,” he said. “Most of the Amish community has pretty much obliged by the lighting requirements. … I think it’s worked out pretty well. We haven’t had a serious crash with one for quite awhile. … Most of the community down here always did have red lights on the back.”
Myers said the Amish of Harrison County have also been diligent about placing headlights on their buggies.
“If something starts to happen, enforcement action will be taken,” he said.
The Swartzentruber sect has been in the news elsewhere this month, having been cited for multiple cases of alleged failure to comply with the same law in Ashland County, Ohio.
According to the website amishamerica.com, the Swartzentruber Amish are among the more conservative subgroups of Amish. The group’s origin dates from 1913-1917 in Holmes County, Ohio, following a split with other Amish groups.