La. Lawmaker targets speed traps

Eula Josephine Lagrange Larose
April 28, 2008
Adam "T-Dent" LaCoste
April 30, 2008
Eula Josephine Lagrange Larose
April 28, 2008
Adam "T-Dent" LaCoste
April 30, 2008

Every part of Louisiana has its notorious speed-trap town.

Baskin, Golden Meadow, Livonia, Georgetown and other burgs have the reputation, at least, of handing out speeding tickets purely to make money. Their mayors and police chiefs have an explanation: we’re just keeping our roadways safe, and punishing outsiders who drive through town too fast.

Rep. Hollis Downs doesn’t believe it has anything to do with safety.

Downs wants Louisiana to follow Oklahoma, Texas and other states that have nearly eliminated the practice by preventing towns from making an excessive amount of money from speeding tickets.

“If we’re trying to attract commerce to Louisiana, and tie our state together, the north with the south, then we don’t want to be stopping people at every town, handing out speeding tickets,” Downs said.

The bill would allow the smallest towns to keep money made from speeding tickets, but that money could not exceed 35 percent of their total budget. Towns with populations under 3,000 would be allowed to keep up to 20 percent.

For instance, once Golden Meadow hit its 20 percent limit, then the town would be required to send the rest of the year’s speeding ticket money to the state, which would send it to a police training organization.

Downs reasons that speeding tickets should be used to punish reckless driving, not to make money.

“You can’t restrict the ability to do policing, and I don’t want to do that. All I want to do is take away the financial incentive” to pull people over, he said.

Small-town police chiefs are not fond of the bill. They packed a committee room last week to testify that the measure is an intrusion on their policing powers and their ability to keep streets and highways safe.

But a report from the legislative auditor last year confirmed what many of us have suspected for years – some small towns rely to a remarkable degree on traffic fines for the money they need to pay employees and buy supplies. Big cities do not: New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Lake Charles and Monroe made less than 4 percent of their income from fines, the report said.

The most successful in raising money from fines were Baskin, Georgetown, Lillie and Robeline, tiny north or central Louisiana villages that took in more than 80 percent of their 2005-06 revenue from “fines and forfeitures.”

Per capita, Baskin was tops: the Franklin Parish village took in about $430,000 – or 87 percent of its revenue – from fines and forfeitures, according to the report. With a population of about 250, that comes out to $1,719 per Baskinite. (Mayor Jean Clark has vehemently denied that the village is a speed trap. “The speed limit inside the city limits is 45,” she said after the audit was released. “We do not stop anybody unless they’re going above 60.”)

Downs believes so many speeding tickets, in towns all over the state, could endanger the gains Louisiana stands to make from upgrades to its highway system. Highways 165 and 167, major north-south throughways, will be fully upgraded to four- and five-lane freeways within a few years. Police officers must stop hiding behind billboards, waiting for a chance to pull someone over, if those improvements are to help the economy, he said.

Downs was pulled over himself this month, not far from Baskin, after passing through the Franklin Parish town of Wisner. He said he was leaving the town limits when he hit the gas, then saw the blue lights of the Wisner Police Department in the rearview mirror.

The officer told Downs he’d accelerated too soon.

The officer also conceded that Downs’ driving had not been a threat to anyone, the lawmaker said.

“There wasn’t a living, breathing human being around, so it had nothing to do with public safety,” he said.

“If it were about public safety, (police would) be in the downtown, they’d be where the people and the vehicles are. But they sit outside of town and they hide. They’ve got that radar gun on you and they nail you.”

Downs’ bill was voted down in the House Transportation Committee last week, but the Ruston Republican has taken it to a different committee, where he hopes it’ll get a better reception. He said he gets plenty of encouraging calls from voters who like the idea.

“The public support for this is growing,” Downs said. “The only opposition is from the mayors and the police chiefs.”