Damascus prepping for response to ‘speed trap’ charges

Damascus City Attorney Beau Wilcox presented updates in the city’s expected response to the charges of violating the Arkansas Speed Trap statute at Tuesday’s Damascus City Council meeting.

 

Wilcox was responding to a finding issued Feb. 22 by Twentieth Judicial District Prosecutor Cody Hiland, which stated Damascus was in violation of the Arkansas speed trap statute due to the city’s revenues from fines exceeding 30 percent of the city’s expenditures for each of the two previous years. Thirty percent of revenues is one of the two ways a city can be found to be acting as a speed trap, per the statute, the other being if more than 50 percent of a city’s tickets are for violations of less than 10 mph over the speed limit. Damascus was not in violation of the 10 mph term.

In Hiland’s Feb. 22 finding, he gave the City of Damascus 30 days to respond before taking action. The statute, unique in the state in that the prosecuting attorney, not a judge, determines the outcome, allows one of two possible sanctions by the prosecuting attorney: Either the city would no longer be allowed to patrol “any or all affected highways,” or “all or any part” of future fines or court costs be diverted to a maintenance and operation fund for public schools in the county. The statute does not specify a 30 day response, but Hiland said at the time he felt that was the best course of action.

Wilcox presented to the council, in its first meeting since Hiland had delivered his finding, that he found the calculations used to determine the 30 percent violation were, in his opinion, in error, in that they included monies generated by warrants of those who either did not make a court appearance or did not pay their fines on time - in both cases with the potential to more than double the traffic fine.

“I think there’s a very arguable point here,” Wilcox said. “There may be an even bigger gray area [in the statute].”

At the previous council meeting, after Wilcox had been told by Hiland to expect a finding showing the city in violation, Wilcox said he felt the speed trap statute was constitutionally suspect.

For example, he said, it was vague about what was used in calculating the 30 percent figure, or even why a 30 percent figure was chosen.

“We can present some facts to them which will make them a little uncomfortable,” Wilcox said at the March 14 meeting, speaking of the response to Hiland.

Wilcox told the council he anticipated the response being delivered Friday.

“It’s a bad statute still in my estimation,” Wilcox said.

Damascus has a unique setting in that it has a five-lane Highway 65 running north-south through it, a major artery used by 20,000 cars a day during peak travel periods according to state figures. The approximately 2.1 mile stretch through the town, marked 45 mph, is relatively straight with no stop lights or speed control mechanisms, but has 11 intersecting streets, as well as business driveways. North and south of the town the highway speed limit is 60 mph.

“Police are the only thing controlling traffic flow in Damascus,” Wilcox said.

City council members expressed concerns. One, Gilbert Lewis, a school bus driver who had spoken at earlier meetings about close-calls with too-fast drivers, asked rhetorically “What if somebody gets killed?” expressing concern if Damascus is not longer able to enforce speeds on the highway.

City of Damascus Mayor L.B. Pavatt also pointed out to the council that the city does not receive the total of the revenue from traffic fines, and that payments are made to the state and county, typical for municipal traffic citations.

 

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