It's a Speed Trap. Now What?

FAULKNER COUNTY, Ark. -- Damascus has been deemed a speed trap under the state statute and is presumed to have abused its police power by ticketing drivers on the highway to produce revenues that exceed 30 percent of the previous year's expenditures. So, for ticketed drivers, is there any recourse to retroactively challenge the tickets they've issued?

The short answer is no.

Hundreds of comments left on the FOX 16 Facebook page allege unfair ticketing and that Damascus has been a speed trap for years. That's nothing new to city officials.

"This is the albatross that has hung around the city's neck for a long time," said City Attorney Beau Wilcox.

But on Wednesday, a State Police investigation and the Faulkner County Prosecuting Attorney said there is truth to the allegations, at least partly.

"This is not about the validity of the ticket. It's about the volume. Whether it's a revenue producer or a public safety function," said Prosecutor Cody Hiland.

Drivers hoping to have tickets dropped or money refunded now that Damascus has officially been accused of abusing its police power might want to put on the brakes.

"Those are situations that need to be fought in the courtroom with the judge, the defense attorney and city attorney. That's where that goes on," Hiland said.

The investigation he requested regarding Damascus was number-based. The question it aimed to answer was whether revenues from tickets exceeded 30 percent of the city's expenditures from the previous year. The Arkansas Speed Trap law makes 30% the threshold. Departments cannot write more than 50 percent of speeding tickets going less than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.

"It really goes to the motivation right, at it's heart. Are you really keeping public safety or is it generating revenue," Hiland said.

Wilcox insists the motivation for the thousands of tickets and hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue is controlling speeders on a five-lane highway that runs through the town of 400. There's no stoplight, Wilcox pointed out, to slow people's roll.

"The focus in Damascus is maintaining safe speeds for motorists," he said. "This is just the outcome of a highly trafficked highway. There are a lot of out of state travelers, tourists headed to Branson. There are a lot of cars that travel through this corridor.

Even those ticketed in town don't necessarily argue that the signs aren't clearly posted. But people's lack of familiarity with the area, how the city patrols, and why it patrols the way it does have been chief concerns for people.

"If you're from out of town, out of state, who are simply passing through, they get cited and they feel like they've been targeted for some reason," Wilcox admitted.

"We've witnessed the patrol cars sit right at the line, right behind the signs and pop people. Why not give people a little bit of breathing room, especially if you know there are individuals who aren't familiar with the area?" this reporter asked Wilcox.

"If you disregard that in any way shape or form, you're still speeding. The officer's placement more or less becomes irrelevant," Wilcox responded.

There's just a tenth of a mile between the 45 mph warning sign and when the speed limit plummets.

A year's worth of tickets between June of 2015 and 2016 show more than 75 percent of those drivers were within four miles of the 60 mile per hour speed limit.

"Probably a quarter of a mile off the 45 mph sign "

An officer with the Damascus Police force, agreeing to speak with us on the condition of anonymity last year contends the department has officers sit near the sign to catch drivers unfamiliar with the area.

"A quarter of a mile is not much when you run 60 miles an hour. You're there in a heartbeat. "

He alleged the approach aims to encourage drivers not to fight the tickets in court. Targeting out of towners who would rather pay than travel back this way or offering "unsafe driving ordinances" to allow motorists to pay a civil penalty to avoid points on their licenses. All in an effort to get more money coming in.

"If they think you're cutting them a break by not assessing points to them, and just writing them a fine, they'll pay the ticket and not worry about it."

The number of warnings Damascus Police Department has issued is a hard number to nail down.

"I can't attest to that," said City Attorney, Beau Wilcox. "I know that's something that going forward, the city will have to do more of, just because we don't want to run afoul of any statute."

With all of the talk of fairness to motorists, Wilcox says that the state law isn't fair to small towns like Damascus.

According to him, a 30 percent threshold is an arbitrary number and just like motorists who have already been ticketed. The city has no recourse to fight the prosecuters findings, even if the numbers are sliced and diced three different ways go against them.

"There is no mechanism to challenge that, appeal that, or challenge that in any way shape or form," Wilcox said.

Ultimately the rules of the road for the police departments might end up getting decided by a court.

"I think finality here might be a good thing for the city. For the people of Arkansas generally who may travel through there."

The police department is inthe same spot as drivers considering a fight on whether they were really were over the limit and broke the law.

The city has 30 days to respond to the prosecutor’s findings to offer justification or anything the city believes might modify the outcome. At that point, Hiland could consider two possible sanctions: removing the police from the highway at all or diverting all revenues from traffic-related citations to the school district.

If sanctions are issued, the city has indicated it plans to seek an injunction and possibly challenge the constitutionality of the law.


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DO YOU NEED FOX16 INVESTIGATES?

Fox16 Investigates is committed to uncovering truth and problems people face across Arkansas. If you have a story that needs to be investigated, call Investigative Reporter Marci Manley on the Investigations Tipline at (501) 340-4448 or email at investigations@fox16.com


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