Change law to prevent legal, illegal speed trap revenues
There’s more than one way to skin a cat if you are a Louisiana municipality in the business of financing yourself by shaking down out-of-town motorists – even if it seems illegal.
After a year-long investigation, state officials lowered the boon on the top two police officials in Henderson, part of whose town limits were extended a few years ago to patrol Interstate 10 around where the highway begins/ends its stretch over the Atchafalaya Basin, for an alleged illegal scheme to kick back money to officers writing traffic tickets. The more written, the more income from a state grant could be funneled under the table.
Besides feathering their own nests, another reason why a regime like this would be created is it helps the town coffers as well. Previous to the middle of 2010, municipalities could write up outrageous amounts for alleged speeding, but then R.S. 32:266 came into force, which directed fine money for infractions 10 miles below the speed limit on an interstate highway to the state for highway safety purposes for municipalities not operating under a home rule charter.
The change spawned from a Legislative Auditor’s report that showed some municipalities were drawing huge proportions of their budgets from these kinds of fines. Henderson was not identified as one such town because it illegally had failed to turn over its financial figures. But the state’s Office of the Inspector General discovered for the most recent year about $2.4 million collected by the town, 80 percent of its revenue, came from traffic fines and subsequent forfeitures.
So it seems that, because the town could not collect on the actual fines, these police officials found a way to divert funds to employees, negating the need of the city to do so through legal channels for compensation, and encouraged them to write more tickets, some of which would be for infractions (real or imagined) other than speeding and thus additionally line the city’s pocketbook that way. If only they had studied the law a little more closely, following the example of another municipality, maybe what is assumed to have happened never would have.
A little to the north, another notorious speed trap about half of which’s revenues came from ticketing according to the report, Washington, decided it needed to keep the gravy train going. After a fruitless effort to try to dodge enforcement of the new law, it simply adopted a home rule charter, becoming the smallest municipality in the state to do so, thereby exempting itself from the law.
Yet eyewitness testimony asserts not everything is being done by the book here as well. One asserts that Washington, who like many of the most egregious municipalities identified in the report, gets assumed offenders to pay up front for a trial later, then later quietly reduces the charges, with the promise of that action, which results in insurance rates not affected negatively, as the enticement for motorists to pay the fine immediately before determination of guilt or innocence.
These incidents underscore the need for the Legislature to revisit the law. At the very least, the exemption for chartered municipalities should be removed. Better would be expanding the provision so that a sliding scale would impact the amount compared to its total revenues that a municipality could collect from traffic enforcement – as the proportion increases, a proportion remitted to the state should increase as well. For example, if the total collected would be 80 percent of a town’s budget, then half collected would have to be remitted to the state.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 11:25