Blue-light bo­nanza

Da­m­as­cus tick­eted

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Mike Master­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. Email him at mmas­ter­son@arkansason­line.com.

Al­leluia! There must be a venge­ful God of Arkansas speed traps af­ter all. And He’s just smited one of our state’s most no­to­ri­ous sin­ners.

Any­one who’s made the trek along U.S. 65 from Con­way north, or coming back south, is wise to the “gotcha” ways of lit­tle Da­m­as­cus. It’s the com­mu­nity of some 385 souls with a bud­get sup­ported by a flow of traf­fic fines paid by mo­torists who edged above its speed limit.

The jeop­ardy be­comes so pre­dictable along 65 that I’ve de­vel­oped a rou­tine when I ap­proach Da­m­as­cus from ei­ther end.

The speed limit along this ma­jor north-south state high­way drops from 65 to 45, but by then I’ve had my shot of 5-Hour-En­ergy and am alert for eva­sive ac­tion. Ap­proach­ing the 45 mph sign, my res­pi­ra­tion ac­cel­er­ates while my speedome­ter de­cel­er­ates to 44. And that’s just where the nee­dle stays glued for at least a cou­ple of miles un­til the sign again reads 65.

Mean­while, I’ve al­ways seen at least one of­fi­cer in a pa­trol car ei­ther with a ve­hi­cle pulled to one side, or parked, lick­ing his chops in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the next hap­less soul to push the speedome­ter above the town’s le­gal limit.

Why, there oughten be a law against that sort of in­sid­i­ous­ness! Oh wait, there is.

Pros­e­cu­tor Cody Hi­land points to the re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Arkansas State Po­lice and the Leg­isla­tive Au­dit Divi­sion, which re­vealed there’s been an end­less stream of prey for the hy­per­vig­i­lant traf­fic of­fi­cers of Da­m­as­cus. In the process, Hi­land says, they’ve vi­o­lated law and abused their po­lice pow­ers.

He has rea­son to say so. In one cal­en­dar year, the burg raised al­most $300,000 from traf­fic tick­ets along U.S. 65.

A com­mu­nity vi­o­lates the state’s speed-trap law if rev­enue from traf­fic fines and costs re­lated to the num­ber of lo­cal tick­ets is more that 30 per­cent of a town’s to­tal ex­penses (sub­tract­ing cap­i­tal ex­penses and debt ser­vice) in the pre­ced­ing year, writes re­porter De­bra Hale-Shel­ton.

A town also breaks the law if over half of the lo­cal mis­de­meanor tick­ets is­sued on a state high­way are is­sued to driv­ers whose ve­hi­cles are trav­el­ing 10 mph or less over the limit.

Hi­land said the Da­m­as­cus num­bers were crunched three ways dur­ing both 2013-14 and 2014-15. Ev­ery anal­y­sis dis­cov­ered the num­ber of ci­ta­tions is­sued ex­ceeded the 30 per­cent thresh­old.

He said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion also looked at sta­tis­tics that in­cluded and ex­cluded the town’s wa­ter depart­ment ex­pen­di­tures, since that agency is con­sid­ered a busi­ness-type ac­tiv­ity. The city still ex­ceeded the 30 per­cent thresh­old. Shel­ton wrote: “The city’s rev­enue from traf­fic fines and costs above the 30 per­cent level ranged from a low of $77,836 to a high of $298,449, de­pend­ing on the year ex­am­ined and the method of anal­y­sis, ac­cord­ing to Hi­land’s report.”

I’m telling ya, val­ued read­ers, those dili­gent Da­m­as­cus deputies earn their pay­checks de­spite what strikes me as what must be a per­pet­ual writer’s cramp. The story didn’t say if there are com­mis­sions and/or plaques awarded for the Da­m­as­cus “Ci­ta­tion­ing Cop of the Year.”

As for the city’s re­ac­tion to the al­le­ga­tion, well, city at­tor­ney Beau Wilcox told Hale-Shel­ton the city would be re­spond­ing within the pre­scribed 30-day limit, “af­ter giv­ing due con­sid­er­a­tion to all the op­tions it may have.”

“If the city’s po­lice pow­ers are lim­ited or re­moved in some fash­ion due to a rather ar­bi­trary and ar­cane statute, then res­i­dents of Da­m­as­cus and mo­torists could well suf­fer,” he told the re­porter. Hmm, I can’t see many mo­torists suf­fer­ing nearly as much as the an­nual city’s bud­get, can you?

He also said a 45 mph limit within the city lim­its is “in­her­ently rea­son­able,” which also sounds fair enough to me. Yet then he strained my pow­ers of cred­i­bil­ity by adding that vir­tu­ally no ci­ta­tions are writ­ten to mo­torists trav­el­ing at least 15 miles over that limit, and “even then we strongly con­sider the mo­torist’s driv­ing record.”

Wouldn’t that mean zip­ping through your town at 60 mph? Then how did the in­ves­ti­ga­tion find so many writ­ten for 10 mph or less over the limit?

Through its mayor and city coun­cil, Da­m­as­cus will likely find it legally ad­vis­able and pru­dent to chal­lenge the speed-trap statute’s con­sti­tu­tional mer­its, Wilcox was quoted say­ing in his email re­sponse.

He con­tin­ued, “In short, there is a fun­da­men­tal lack of due process af­forded the city by way of the statute, and there are vague, am­bigu­ous, and ar­bi­trary com­po­nents of the statute that also make it wor­thy of ju­di­cial re­view.”

Sounds like lawyerly prose to me, es­pe­cially the part about the law be­ing the prob­lem rather than the city that’s gained such an un­flat­ter­ing rep­u­ta­tion.

The pros­e­cu­tor said sanc­tions un­der con­sid­er­a­tion against Da­m­as­cus in­clude or­der­ing the town to cease pa­trolling af­fected high­ways (65) or or­der­ing the town to pay all or part of fu­ture rev­enue from such traf­fic vi­o­la­tions to a county fund for pub­lic schools.

As for me, de­spite Wilcox’s gen­er­ous claim, I’ll still not be driv­ing 60 through Da­m­as­cus, even with a clean driv­ing record.

Mike Master­son

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