When Centerville police Chief Sid Andrews visited The Telegraph’s Facebook page in the fall, he took exception to comments that labeled his city a speed trap.
The comments were posted below an Associated Press story about Waldo, Florida, a small town with a reputation as a speed trap that was under fire for its ticket writing. The scandal ultimately resulted in a state investigation, resignation of the chief and assistant chief and disbandment of the police force.
“Immediately, a lot of the comments at the bottom -- a lot of the people from the public -- started making accusations about agencies in Middle Georgia that they considered to be speed traps,” Andrews said. “Centerville’s name popped up several times, and quite honestly, it was frustrating because I’ve been here for 14 years, and I personally know that we are operating within the boundaries of the law as far as radar goes.”
Commenters also called Byron a speed trap.
“I did hear about it, and it doesn’t surprise me one bit,” Byron police Chief Wesley Cannon said. “To me, I took it as a compliment.
“We’re actually doing our job if we’re getting that type of response. People should know to slow down and not to speed because we don’t want those type dangers on our roadway.”
State law governs the use of speed detection devices, such as radar and laser, and it’s illegal to ticket motorists solely for financial gain. The Telegraph looked at those regulations and requested data from several Middle Georgia law enforcement agencies to see how they fared under the law.
A section of state law requires law enforcement agencies for cities, universities and colleges, and counties to keep revenue generated from speeding tickets below 40 percent of the agency’s total law enforcement budget.
Under the law, tickets issued for speeds of 18 mph or more over the speed limit are exempt from the revenue calculation. The law also does not apply to the Georgia State Patrol.
Those over the 40 percent revenue calculation may be presumed to be running radar or laser for reasons other than public safety, unless they are able to defend the revenue collections, said Frank V. Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.
For example, an agency might have a defensible position if it’s heavily ticketing speeders at an intersection or in area where there have been multiple deaths, Rotondo said, because high speeds increase the odds of death in a crash.
The 40 percent rule is commonly termed the “speed-trap law,” and both Andrews and Cannon said their agencies were well under that.
“We most certainly have the documentation to prove that we’re operating within (the) boundaries,” Andrews said.
The figures show that revenue generated from all speeding tickets issued by Centerville police was less than 10 percent of the police budget for each of the past four years.
When broken down by revenue generated from tickets issued at 17 mph and below -- the citations and revenue considered by the state when investigating a revenue complaint -- Byron also was below the 40 percent revenue calculation.
Revenue from those speeding citations issued by Byron police has steadily decreased over the past four years, from 25.1 percent of the police budget in 2011 to 8.5 percent of the budget for 2014 through Sept. 30.
However, a glitch in the Byron numbers was detected. Municipal Court Administrator Laura Hein attributed it to a change in computer software that may not have picked up all tickets issued by Byron police and the resulting revenue. Hein said she did not think the ticket and revenue numbers provided by her office could be significantly off.
In October 2011, an investigator for the Georgia Department of Public Safety went by hand through a stack of computer listings of tickets when investigating a complaint against Byron police. A ticketed motorist alleged police were not using speed detection devices to protect the city but to generate revenue. Byron police asked for the state investigation.
The investigator examined total tickets issued for violations up to and including 17 mph over the limit and compared those with total proposed budget figures, according to the investigative case file obtained by The Telegraph.
Revenue from those tickets accounted for 17 percent of the police budget in 2008, 14 percent in 2009 and 15 percent in 2010 -- all below the 40 percent rule, the state found.
The Telegraph also looked at figures for Fort Valley, Perry and Warner Robins police and the Bibb, Houston and Peach sheriff’s offices. Macon police were also considered before consolidation.
None of the agencies came close to the 40 percent limit.
In fact, the last time a Georgia law enforcement agency got in trouble for exceeding the 40 percent rule was 19 years ago, said Mark Perry, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Public Safety. The Cusseta Police Department’s radar permit was suspended in 1995 for exceeding the revenue limit and other violations. The city later merged with Chattahoochee County
Deputies for the Houston County Sheriff’s Office issued the most tickets of all the agencies for all four years. Comparatively, Byron police, a smaller agency, issued the next highest number of tickets -- including more than twice as many as another small agency, Perry police.
In 2014 through Sept. 30, Houston County deputies issued 3,374 total speeding tickets, Byron police issued 1,709, Bibb County sheriff’s deputies issued 1,389, Warner Robins police issued 1,119, Perry police issued 827, Centerville police issued 690, Peach County deputies issued 312 and Fort Valley police issued 306 tickets.
When asked why a smaller agency was ticketing more than larger agencies, Cannon said, “We work. I just don’t know how else to say it. We’re well within the law. We’re not even close to being in danger of being outside the law on it.”
What cannot be measured, Cannon said, is how many crashes may have been prevented, injuries avoided and lives saved from enforcing the speed limit.
“We work to make sure that our community is safe in all facets from any crime -- from a crime of someone being burglarized to a crime of someone running a red light or speeding through our town and hitting and injuring someone,” Cannon said. “That’s our job.”
Cannon also objected to characterizing the 40 percent revenue calculation as the speed-trap law.
“A trap is a trick,” Cannon said. “It’s just like an animal trap. You trick an animal to go into the trap to get caught. We don’t do -- nor do any of these agencies -- do anything to trick anybody into speeding and getting caught. That’s a speed trap.
“Having, back in the ‘60 and ‘70s, the old signs that would flip to a different speed, or doing something to make somebody speed or trick them into getting a ticket, that’s a speed trap. What this is -- is just enforcement.”
The Houston County Sheriff’s Office was the subject of a state Department of Public Safety investigation in July 2013 after a motorist alleged that the agency was thwarting the 40 percent revenue calculation by targeting speeders exceeding 22 mph over the posted speed limit, according to the investigative file.
The complaint was unfounded because “any motorist traveling faster than 17 mph over the speed limit is considered a danger to the motoring public,” the investigator stated in his findings. State law does not limit the issuance of tickets for speeds at 18 mph and over the posted speed limit.
The Houston County Sheriff’s Office was also investigated at the same time for another complaint made by the same motorist. He complained that the parked vehicle of the deputy who ticketed him for speeding was not visible from at least 500 feet as required by law. The complaint was ruled unfounded -- with the deputy actually visible within four times the length required, according to the state’s investigative file.
The state investigated Centerville in December 2005 after a ticketed motorist alleged there wasn’t any signage, that the officer’s parked vehicle was not visible from a distance of at least 500 feet and that fees generated from speed detection devices were a major revenue generator for the city, according to a copy of the case file. The state found the complaint was without merit.
“The city of Centerville is employing speed detection devices for the purpose of public health, welfare and safety and not for the purpose of generating revenue for the city,” the investigator wrote in his findings.
Generally, the state investigates all complaints related to Georgia law governing the use of speed detection devices.
Other requirements of the state law for speed detection devices include approval from the governing authority to operate the devices and a license from the Federal Communications Commission.
A law enforcement officer must conduct a radar accuracy test at the beginning and end of a shift as well as when requested by a motorist when pulled over for speeding. The officer is required to keep a daily log noting when those tests are done. Other requirements deal with the visibility of the officer’s vehicle and signage.
The law also prohibits the issuance of citations for speeding less than 10 mph over the posted speed limit, with the exception of school zones, historic districts and residential zones.
“We take that a step further, and we give them a 15 mile an hour cushion before we start writing tickets, and I think that’s very generous on our part,” said Cannon, of Byron. “At any point and time during the day when someone is driving, they could be going 10, 11, 12 over the speed limit. We understand that. That’s why we don’t start ticketing until 15 over the posted speed limit.”
However, there are exceptions, said Byron police Lt. Bryan Hunter, such as when a motorist is involved in an accident or found to be in violation of other laws such as marijuana possession or driving on a suspended license, for example.
Centerville’s Andrews was investigated by the state and cleared when he was a patrol officer in 2001.
“I think a lot of it is just perception on (the public’s) end and not knowing the facts of what a speed trap is and what the components are legally in Georgia as a speed trap,” he said.
In Andrews’ case, the motorist alleged Andrews was unlawfully ticketing on a hill that had grade of more than 7 percent, that his vehicle wasn’t visible from at least 500 feet and that Centerville was known to ticket primarily to produce revenue, the chief said. The state determined all aspects of the complaint were unfounded, he said.
“Some people just, just won’t ever understand,” Cannon said. “They get a speeding ticket in Byron, or anywhere in Middle Georgia, and you know, we’re going to be tagged a speed trap when all they had to do was not speed.”