BEAM: Why Can’t We Get Rid Of Abusive Speed Traps?

The Legislature has been unable at almost every session to deal with the issue of speed traps that are infamous throughout the state. Even when a possible solution was enacted in 2009, it hasn’t achieved its goal.

Lawmakers are taking the issue on again at the current session, and the town of Washington, La., has become the poster child for what is wrong with speed traps.

Two bills approved by the House Transportation Committee this week specifically target Washington, a town of about 1,000 people that is 30 miles north of Lafayette on Interstate 49. The legislation is awaiting debate by the full House.

Washington is giving tickets to people going just one, two or three miles per hour over the posted speed limit, according to Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, who is sponsor of the two bills approved this week.

Only 100 yards of Interstate 49 are in the town limits of Washington, he said, and the 100 yards are one-half of an overpass. Seabaugh said the stretch only includes the top of an overpass to the southern half of the overpass. He said officers catch motorists coming down the overpass.

The town collected $1.3 million from fines and forfeitures in the fiscal year than ended June 30, 2013, Seabaugh said. That money provides 83.7 percent of the town’s operating funds.

“It is far and away the worst speed trap in the state of Louisiana,” Seabaugh said.

Former state Rep. Hollis Downs, R-Ruston, thought he had the problem solved when he sponsored Act 188 of 2009 that tried to curb speed traps.

The act says municipalities have to forward any fines or penalties they collect from motorists going less than 10 miles per hour over the posted limit to the state treasurer to be used by the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.

The cities and towns can retain fines and penalties they receive from motorists going 10 or more mph over the posted limit.

Unfortunately, the Hollis legislation is difficult to enforce. Most cities and towns simply refuse to send those fines and penalties to the state.

Washington was one of those in 2010. Its audit revealed it had kept $222,000. The legislative auditor said at an audit hearing in 2011 that Joseph A. Pitre, the mayor of Washington, didn’t agree with the law.

Daryl Purpera, the auditor, said at that time there was only $5,800 sent to the treasurer from all municipalities. He said that indicated many cities and towns weren’t following the law.

One of Seabaugh’s bills wants to bring all cities under the Hollis act. Those with home rule charters had been exempted by Hollis in 2009.

The Louisiana Municipal Association opposes what Seabaugh is trying to do.

John Gallagher, assistant director of government affairs for the Louisiana Municipal Association, spoke against the bill. He said that part of I-49 in Washington was in the town limits before the interstate was constructed.

“Washington must have felt like it was a gift from God,” said Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, who sponsored an earlier speed trap bill that was rejected by the House.

Gallagher was asked what the LMA has done about speed traps. He said it plans to meet with mayors and come up with corrective legislation in 2015. But where has the association been all this time?

Meanwhile, Gallagher said he “gets out and pushes when he gets to Washington.”

Seabaugh was asked if he had ever talked to town officials in Washington about the legislation.

“It wasn’t necessary. Just look at the abuses. It’s clear they don’t really care,” he said.

Seabaugh said Rep. Ledricka Thierry, D-Opelousas, who represents Washington, opposes his legislation. However, he said Sen. Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas, who also represents the town, will handle his speed trap bills in the Senate.

In fairness, it should be noted that Baskin, Krotz Springs and Port Barre are also considered to be notorious speed traps.

Newspapers that have tried to get information from speed trap town officials can’t get any responses.

Opponents of corrective legislation don’t want lawmakers to interfere with local law enforcement.

Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, a former commander of State Police, is one of those. He said, “There are a lot of bad actors out there.”

Motorists aren’t worried about speeding, they just want the ticket “fixed,” he said. There is no respect for law enforcement, he said.

Isn’t it possible that the overzealous officers in the speed trap towns are doing more than anyone to create disrespect for law enforcement?

As Seabaugh said, his bill is targeting abuse, not law enforcement.

The odds of getting these latest bills enacted aren’t good, and they may not be the final answer. However, isn’t it time the men and women who make our laws in this state take a hard line on speed traps? They have already rejected two measures calling for road signs warning motorists that there are speed traps ahead.

Drivers from in and outside the state deserve better than they are getting from cities and towns that are just out to make some fast and easy money.

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