What has 764 legs and eats wallets?

Last spring Damascus, Arkansas (population 382) was officially branded a speed trap and forbidden from writing speeding tickets. Shortly before the final order was issued the city got rid of its no-longer-necessary police chief. And the story got better.

The city was stealing from drivers, and prosecutors suspect the police chief was stealing from the city. When your department exists to raise revenue it must be tempting to cut yourself in on a piece of the action.

According to news coverage last spring, police were not really interested in catching speeders. They were out to write tickets, and would pick cars obeying the speed limit as well as fast cars. Then they would hand the ticket to the judge in the next room.

Like a lot of dots on the map, Damascus has its own prosecutor and its own court. Unlike some, it borrows a real judge from the district court system instead of hiring a local lawyer with connections. Still, don’t expect separation of powers on the scale you may have learned in Civics. The small city has a small building to serve its large revenue needs.

This continues to amaze me. In much of the country a mayor can hire a judge, a lawyer, and a police chief and start cashing checks. Where I live, a traffic court covers an area with tens of thousands of people. It is a state court legally independent of municipal government. A town the size of Damascus probably wouldn’t have a police department.

The order to stop enforcement came from the county prosecutor, whose job includes enforcing the law against ticketing for “the principal purpose of raising revenue.” Damascus sued, claiming its constitutional right to be a speed trap had been violated. It sounds silly, but don’t laugh. The Ohio Supreme Court has repeatedly found a constitutional right to run speed traps. But Damascus isn’t in Ohio and the judge wasn’t convinced the city needed to resume ticketing. With three other agencies covering traffic duties there was no safety crisis.

Unless the Circuit Court intervenes, the order not to write tickets will last until the end of 2018. The original prosecutor got a new job, but his successor is letting the sanctions continue.

Drivers should hope Arkansas DOT corrects an unreasonably low speed limit before the radar comes back on. They should hope the legislature prevents radar from coming back on.

Arkansas’ current speed trap law is weak. There is a better way to make sure enforcement is about safety, or at least not about money. All of the revenue for tickets on a state highway, whether written under state or local law, whether guilty as charged or plea-bargained, should go to the state or the regional school system. The cases should be heard initially in district court, not municipal court. The existing law stops an occasional speed trap. My law would keep them from forming in the first place.

When law enforcement brings in revenue local politicians see a public safety crisis. When you ask them to pay for police patrols, they tend to decide they are in a safe place after all.

One last note. I mentioned the original prosecutor got a new job. Cody “speed trap buster” Hiland is now the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. I was surprised when I learned of his promotion. Because U.S. Attorneys are traditionally subject to approval by the state’s Senators, candidates need to avoid stepping on political toes. That tells me shutting down a speed trap is not a controversial act like it would be where I live.

Maybe there is hope for Arkansas.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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2 Responses to “What has 764 legs and eats wallets?”

  1. Tom Beckett says:

    Mike Masterson has been following this story for several years in the Arkansas Democrat & Gazette. It’s worth a Google search of his columns.

    The Arkansas speed trap law has a lower threshold for a speed trap that Oklahoma, where the proportion of traffic fines to city budget is 50%. Still, it can be hard to get anything done because the state is not always inclined to investigate another police agency. Damascus has been a problem for many years.

    Interesting you mention that a town the size of Damascus has a police department. I came here from NY, where it would most likely be the case that they do not. It would be an unincorporated village-often referred to as hamlets, though that is not a legal definition in NY law-and patrol would be handled by the county sheriff department, or state police. I find it interesting that towns of this size have their own departments. About 25 miles north of me, Sulphur Springs, population around 700, has a police department. Highfill, on Ark 264 and 12 between Lowell and Gentry, about the same size, also has one. The only way they can exist is through traffic enforcement. There’s not enough of a tax base there otherwise to support that venture, and it’s not like the place is a hot bed of violent crime, such that they need police protection. As always, it’s about the money.

    • John Carr says:

      I would have included more links in my post, except most of the articles have gone into a subscription-only archive. The articles are not worth $3 to a reader of a blog post looking for background information. I wish micropayments for news could work but they’d probably just generate more clickbait. “Shocking news about speed traps, pay 5 cents to learn!” “You won’t believe what the prosecutor just did!”