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SPECIAL REPORT: A speed trap's bad rap
Frequent speeding or accidents mean enforcement not necessarily a trap
Gainesville Master Police Officer Griggs Wall uses a laser to detect traffic speeds on John Morrow Jr. Parkway in Gainesville on Thursday morning.

Other stories in this special report:

Annexed areas make jurisdiction clearer, police say

Sheriff's deputies: Higher speeds mean more accidents

Some small towns have a reputation with drivers


How do you define a speed trap?

Here is how Georgia state law directs the Department of Public Safety in investigating complaints about law enforcement using speed-detection devices for purposes other than the promotion of the public health, welfare and safety:

“There shall be a rebuttable presumption that a law enforcement agency is employing speed-detection devices for purposes other than the promotion of the public health, welfare and safety if the fines levied based on the use of speed-detection devices for speeding offenses are equal to or greater than 40 percent of that law enforcement agency’s budget; provided, however, that fines for speeding violations exceeding 17 miles per hour over the established speed limit shall not be considered when calculating total speeding fine revenue for the agency.”

Speed detection rules
Georgia law is specific in the ways county, city or college law enforcement agencies’ can use speed-detection devices. Some of these specifics include:

  • Signs must be put up warning approaching motorists that speed-detection devices are being employed. No such devices can be used within 500 feet of any such sign.
  • Signs must be put up warning approaching motorists of changes in the speed limit. The signs must be visible plainly from every lane of traffic and in any traffic conditions. No speed-detection devices can be used within 500 feet of any such sign.
  • No stationary speed-detection device can be used where the vehicle from which the device is operated is obstructed from the view of approaching motorists or is otherwise not visible for at least 500 feet.
  • No officer can make a case based on the use of any speed-detection device, unless the speed of the vehicle exceeds the posted speed limit by more than 10 mph.

Source: Official Code of Georgia Annotated

A frequent traveler? If so, you’ve probably had this conversation with someone you know:

“You’re going where? Well, watch out for the speed trap along (_________).”

The term speed trap is usually meant to describe overly energetic enforcement of speeding laws, often as a means to raise revenue. But it’s also a prickly topic for Georgia law enforcement agencies trying to adhere to the state’s tightly written laws governing the use of speed-detection devices.

“There’s no need to put an officer on a vacant highway where ... there are no accidents and no problems with excessive speed.

That’s not a good use of your resources,” said Suwanee Police Chief Mike Jones, who lives in Hall County. Agencies need to “put your police officers where you need them when you need them. If you’re having accidents on a particular roadway and it’s because of speeding, that’s where you need to run the radar.”

The term speed trap has surfaced a lot lately with Hall County Commissioner Bobby Banks’ publicly aired concerns about Gainesville’s proposed annexation of a section of Interstate 985 north of Atlanta Highway and a section along McEver Road near Gould Drive.

Banks said in a letter to Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper that it appears the city was taking the same approach as Oakwood “to use their police force as a principal means of revenue generation.”

The letter received stout responses from Hooper and Oakwood’s acting city manager, Patti Doss-Luna.

“Our department is not in the business of producing revenue; my personal integrity is such that that’s not something I would allow to occur,” Hooper said.

“We are disappointed to be referenced by any rumor or falsehood that reflects negatively on our Oakwood Police Department,” Doss-Luna said.

Rules of the road

“Speed trap” is not a legal term, but there’s plenty of law governing how city, county and college police departments use speed-control devices.

For starters, agencies must apply to the Georgia Department of Public Safety to operate such a device.

“The DOT comes out and gives the jurisdiction a list of the roads, along with the speed limits, where they can run the speed-detection device,” said Angie Holt, director of Public Safety’s special investigations division.

Whether a road is eligible depends on various factors, including the road’s number of dips and rises.

When Public Safety issues the permit, the law enforcement agency must agree to abide by all the applicable laws — and there’s a host of them, including distance requirements where officers can run speed detection and placement of warning signs.

Motorists suspecting something is amiss can lodge a complaint with the Department of Public Safety.

“The kinds of complaints we get are uncertified people running radar, running radar on a road that’s not authorized, running it on a grade that’s higher than 7 percent,” she said, citing a few examples.

“But by and large, the biggest complaint that we get is ‘they’re running a speed trap,’” Holt said.

It’s not an ATM

The law requires that agencies use radar for public safety, not as a cash cow for government budgets.

An agency is breaking the law if fines from speeding tickets are 40 percent or more of the agency’s budget. Further, tickets involving traveling more 17 mph over the speed limit aren’t considered when calculating total speeding revenue.

“I’ve been (director) for about 2 years and no one has reached that criteria,” Holt said.

Revenue from speeding tickets in Gainesville totaled $420,490 in 2008, or 4 percent of the department’s budget for fiscal year 2008.

Oakwood had 1,447 speeding tickets and 311 speeding warnings — including all speed excesses — in 2008, according to Chief Randall Moon. Finals totaled $283,220.99 ($209,614 as the city’s portion), making up 17 percent of Oakwood’s public safety budget of $1.6 million.

Of the 13,097 traffic citations the Hall County Sheriff’s Office issued in 2008, 4,741 were for speeding.

The Sheriff’s Office does not track revenue, and the Clerk of Court’s Office does not keep record of tickets by offense or issuing agency. Therefore, records include revenue generated by the Georgia State Patrol and fines paid for tickets other than speeding tickets and are not an accurate reflection.

A safety restriction

The Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police sees flaws in the 40 percent threshold.

“This restriction could operate contrary to the efforts toward public health, welfare and safety,” the organization states in a 2008 traffic safety report. “Theoretically, a department could be forced to suspend traffic enforcement efforts based on this arbitrary figure for fear of having their speed detection permit revoked.”

The report also states, “the arbitrary figure does not account for small agencies with small budgets that have a large highway in their jurisdiction.”

“The law enforcement agency receives pressure from local lawmakers and the public to slow traffic down on the highway, but they must be careful they do not make too many cases, regardless of the number of persons violating the law, as the fines could quickly add up to 40 percent of their small budget.

“The law effectively makes a reverse quota.”

Suwanee’s Jones is president of the Duluth-based organization.

Speeding fines are “revenue coming in, but the purpose or the reasons we do traffic enforcement is what we wanted to address in the (report),” he said.

The report says speed trap is a term “often used in today’s vernacular to describe genuinely legitimate efforts by law enforcement officers to enforce laws passed by the state legislature.”

The Internet is awash in sites that identify ticket-heavy stops and provide tips on fighting speeding tickets. Most are not shy in saying “speed trap.”

The National Motorists Association, which says it was founded to represent and protect the interests of motorists, advises drivers to stay alert on the road, use a radar/laser detector and refrain from driving that draws attention, such as tailgating and frequent lane changes.

Jones said, “If I just went out there to run radar for the sake of running radar or write tickets for the sake of writing tickets without an objective other than catching people, then that’s where (negative) attitudes grow.

“But the citizens also have to take responsibility for their actions and many times people don’t want to do that.”