ASHLAND — Five Amish men charged under Ohio’s new buggy law pleaded no contest Tuesday in Ashland Municipal Court. However, in a written letter, the group vowed not to pay the $50 fines attached to the misdemeanor charges.
Andy Swartzentruber, Eli Swartzentruber, Menno Swartzentruber, Eli Mast and John Yoder appeared before Judge John Good for an arraignment.
The court appearance took place eight days after each was charged Oct. 10 with not attaching a yellow flashing light to the buggy, according to court documents.
Gov. Mike DeWine signed the new law in June, which requires Amish buggies and other animal-drawn vehicles to display a yellow flashing light while driving on public streets. The law went into effect Aug. 31.
Failing to display a yellow flashing light is considered a minor misdemeanor and can result in a fine of up to $100. Penalties cannot include jail or license suspension, Good noted.
By pleading no contest, Good said the men waived their rights to a trial.
The Amish men were not represented by an attorney, but they did submit a letter to the court. The letter stated the new law is similar to a law enacted in the 1960s, “which our forefathers deemed too worldly. We are inclined to still believe so.”
Andy Swartzentruber, who signed the letter, wrote the Swartzentruber’s Amish church in Ashland County has taken a “unanimous vote” in its 15 districts throughout Ohio “to not have any blinking lights whatsoever.”
He said their buggies have reflector strips and that yellow lights “could mean a school bus going 50 miles an hour, or a stationary road sign, or anything else.”
“Since we are objecting for religious reasons, paying a fine is not an option,” Andy Swartzentruber wrote. “We humbly apologize for any trouble this may have caused you and will leave the verdict up to your wise judgement.
“Thank you for your time and trouble.”
After reading the letter aloud during the hearing, Good paused.
“Well, the court can’t give you legal advice, Mr. Swartzentruber. The decision to refuse to pay any fines that the court might issue is going to bring you into conflict of the court,” Good said.
“And that’s not something that I want, so it would be my serious hope that you would reconsider that decision.”
With that, he found each man guilty of the charge and sentenced them to a fine of $50, plus additional court costs.
Good said the men have the right to appeal within 30 days of his judgement.
Buggy crashes, by the numbers
There were 723 buggy crashes in Ohio between 2009 and 2019, according to a 2019 Ohio Department of Transportation Statewide Amish Travel Study.
The study also found around 350 crashes caused injuries — 132 of which were incapacitating. There were 17 fatalities and about 65% of the crashes with buggies happened while passing.
Most of the 120 crashes in 2020 happened during daylight hours, according to committee testimony from Scott Wiggam, a Republican lawmaker who sponsored the bill passed in June.
In Ashland County, both sides of a nearly six-mile section of State Route 545 is slated to receive eight-foot wide buggy lanes.
Officials have said the project — funded through a $5 million grant from the Ohio Department of Transportation — wouldn’t begin until spring of 2025.
The buggy lanes are to be built on Ohio 545 between Ohio 96 to the southern corporation limit of the Village of Savannah, a 5.73-mile stretch.