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.