Money Talks

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

Don’t do the crime if you can’t read a rhyme — Any highway sign during mobilization week

The federal government likes to throw money at states in return for cooperation in a marketing campaign. Rhyming slogans, mobilizations, zero tolerance, all paid for with your gas taxes.

From the state’s point of view this is free overtime for police. Public employee unions are powerful here in Massachusetts. The state can’t say no.

What happens if the state can’t say yes? Some federal grants are inconsistent with state law. You can guess what happens when politicians weigh money against principles.

Speed limit… oh, who cares

In 2001 FHWA funded a demonstration project to show the results of setting speed limits correctly. NHTSA got involved and turned it into another speed trap grant, but there was still the requirement that speed limits were supposed to be set correctly. That means based on traffic flow, not neighbor complaints or revenue goals.

Some places went along with the program as intended. Connecticut raised a speed limit from 35 to 45. (There are 1,000 more miles of 35 zones to fix. It’s a start.)

The town of Natick, Massachusetts wanted overtime money but didn’t want to change speed limits. Local officials offered a compromise. The traffic court magistrate promised to find drivers guilty of speeding based on the grant proposal, not the speed limit or the facts of the case.

I would never get a job as a federal grant administrator. Here’s what I would had done. I would have rejected the application as not complying with the rules. I would have forwarded the application to federal prosecutors as attempted fraud. I would have forwarded the letter to state officials for investigation of judicial misconduct. But handing out money is more important to the DOT than doing the job right.

As a private citizen I hoped I at least had a case under the False Claims Act, but you can’t sue when the government already knows about the fraud.

In the end the town got its money without having to risk annoying residents or improving road safety by posting realistic speed limits.

Click it or the officer will use his discretion

There is a a zero tolerance seat belt mobilization every year. As I write this one is in progress. It has to be a zero tolerance seat belt mobilization because that’s what the federal government is paying for. I’d rather they paid officers to stand on a corner and sing show tunes, but like I said I’m not a grant administrator.

If officials were honest they would tell NHTSA, sorry but we can’t join. Zero tolerance seat belt mobilizations are illegal in Massachusetts.

First, police can’t pull over drivers for not wearing seat belts. Secondary enforcement was a compromise to get the law passed. Voters had rejected a primary enforcement law.

Second, zero tolerance enforcement is illegal. State law says officer discretion takes precedence over department policy. Police chiefs used to decide whose tickets to fix and whose to submit to the state. You had a few days to call your connections to plead your case. The old system was seen as too corrupt.

They can’t do zero tolerance legally, but they do it anyway. Who is going to challenge the policy? Federal money-dispensers don’t care about state law. State money-dispensers’ jobs depend on having money to dispense. Town officials care much more about keeping police well paid.

Drivers can’t challenge the policy either. The fine is $25. The fee to plead not guilty is $25. For all practical purposes it is illegal to contest a seat belt ticket in Massachusetts.

A class action is tempting, but not likely to succeed. You have to fight traffic tickets in traffic court.

For now there’s not much you can do about them taking your taxes and writing you tickets to make quota. But I do promise this: if you elect me attorney general I am going to have a good time with traffic law abusers.

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