CLARENDON COUNTY, SC (WIS) - A months-long WIS investigation into how the town of Turbeville is charging speeders is finished.
What we discovered is that Turbeville created its own speeding law with penalties the chief there said "Should shock the conscience," of the public.
But many legal experts think the town could be liable for a lawsuit and potentially millions of dollars.
We drove to Turbeville, a small town along Highway 378 between Interstate 95 and Myrtle Beach, and watched the town's police chief issue nearly 10 traffic tickets within a span of a few hours on Labor Day. Each ticket carried fines of either $288 or $388.
But, there is a "benefit" the town promises drivers: If they pay the fine, the town won't give any license points.
TURBEVILLE'S SPECIAL SPEEDING LAW
Speeding is a traffic crime in South Carolina and the General Assembly decided, if convicted, drivers would pay a fine and the DMV would add a point penalty to a South Carolina driver's license. After six points, the DMV sends a driver a letter, notifying him his license could be suspended. Too many points, and the state will suspend your driving privileges.
Lawmakers wanted the purpose of the point penalty to punish and to deter bad driving; the intention is to make the state's roads safer.
On May 13, 2003, Turbeville town council decided the state's speeding laws weren't tough enough and passed 13-22, the Town Traffic Ordinance. The ordinance states, "It shall be unlawful for any person to operate any vehicle without care, caution and full regard for safety of persons and property." The language in the ordinance gives town officers the discretion to interpret whether a driver is being careless, which the town determined speeding would fit that definition.
If convicted of speeding in Turbeville, the town has the right to charge a driver up to $500 and if the driver doesn't pay the fine, the ordinance provides a jail sentence of up to 30 days. The $500 could be much higher once the town includes court costs and state assessments.
HOW IT WORKS
Labor Day is one of the busiest days of the year in Turbeville. The police force there doesn't tolerate speeding.
"I got a speeding ticket for doing 53 in a 35, $388," Margie Wierenga told WIS as she showed us the ticket she got in June.
"I was getting off I-95 and drove into town and the next thing I know, a cop is pulling me over," Wierenga said.
The speed limit drops from 70 on the interstate, to 60 on the four-lane Highway 378 into Turbeville. The limit drops to 45 miles-per-hour in town, then to 35 within a few hundred feet.
"I kind of expected $150 or $120, something like that, but $388 just blew my mind," Wierenga said.
Turbeville Police Sgt. Robert Carter issued Wierenga the ticket and she said Carter told her it wasn't as bad as it sounded; if she paid the fine, she wouldn't lose any points. Days later, Wierenga called Turbeville court clerk Deborah Welch and asked for a break.
"I called Mrs. Welch at the clerk of court's office and she reduced it to $255," said Wierenga.
"Did it feel like a break?" Barr asked.
"Well, I was glad it wasn't $388," Wierenga said.
We first met Wierenga nearly two months ago and got on the subject of speeding tickets. That's when she told us about the ticket and the fine she paid Turbeville. The violation lists "Traffic Ordinance" and the charge and where the state speeding code should be is the town's ordinance number, 13-22.
When we went to Turbeville to investigate the town's ticketing process, we immediately spotted Chief David Jones writing a ticket to the driver of a van. When the chief let the van go, we flagged its driver down to find out what he was charged with and to take a look at his ticket.
Hudson Marques was driving the van, which had Massachusetts license plates. The chief charged Marques with speeding and driving without a license. The chief handed two pieces of copy paper with his tickets printed on it.
"Where did he pull these pieces of paper from?" Barr asked.
"From his car," Marques answered. "He printed it. He has a little computer, he writes it and prints the ticket for me."
The officer didn't arrest Hudson for driving without a license, instead he made Marques an offer.
"He asked me for $488, so they can let me go," he said.
"So, it was either you pay the money or go to jail?" Barr asked.
"Or go to jail, yep," Marques said.
The chief gave Marques a receipt for the bond he posted, then allowed one of the other men in the van to drive away from the scene.
"At the end though, you decided: either you comply, pay the ticket or you go to jail?" Barr asked.
"Yeah, I pay the ticket, I don't want to go to jail because I'm working, so I just pay him cash," Marques told WIS.
As soon as we left Marques and headed back into town, the chief had two women in two separate cars, pulled over in almost the same spot he stopped the van. One of the women was from New York state, and the other was from Georgia. The chief issued both women $288 speeding tickets. Again, the charges were violations of the town's speeding ordinance and not the state's speeding law.
Julia Lucas' ticket was for driving 48 in a 35.
"That ticket he wrote you--anything suspicious about that?" Barr asked.
"It doesn't look like a normal ticket," Lucas said. "He told me that he didn't charge me for speeding, he charged me for a traffic ordinance because if he charged me for speeding, they would take four points off my license in New York," Lucas said.
"As soon as I rounded that curve right down there, he threw his lights on and I pulled over and he said I was going 50 in a 35," Danny Long of Greenville said. Long, who was on his way home from Myrtle Beach, said he'd never seen a ticket printed from an officer's car before, especially one that didn't carry a points violation in lieu of a potential $500 fine or up to 30 days in jail.
"It just seems like they kind of make up their own rules. They found some ways to get around the system and it's a shame that they're cheating people; they're really cheating people out of money here," Long said. "That's ridiculous."
We were in Turbeville for a little more than 2 hours and watched the chief ticket eight drivers. Every ticket was written under the town's own speeding law. Every driver, except Danny Long, was from out of state and none of the drivers lived in the town of Turbeville.
Every driver we interviewed expressed concerns over the validity of the tickets the chief issued that day, especially with the "benefit" of paying up to a $500 fine in exchange for not getting any license points.
"I've never seen a citation printed out of a computer printer," Mike Dion from Miami said.
Dion was driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee with Florida plates. Dion got one of the town's $388 tickets. We flagged Dion down just a few blocks from where Chief Jones handed him the ticket, which Dion said, he felt the chief was almost "talking him into" accepting the town's ticket.
"That he was doing me a favor by making it a traffic ordinance versus a speeding ticket. He told me I have to appear in court or I could just mail the ticket in," Dion said.
At about noon, the chief was stopped and talking with a friend in a parking lot. That's when we decided to ask him about the tickets and the cash bond we watched him accept that morning.
"Chief, can we have a word with you?" Barr asked. "We want to talk to you about these municipal tickets you've been writing." Jones would not acknowledge our questioning.
"Excuse me sir, did you take a cash bond this morning from a Hispanic male? Chief, we'd like to talk to you about these municipal tickets you guys have been writing out here. Any comment from you?" Barr asked.
"Go to Court Administration in the state of South Carolina," Jones said as he closed his patrol car's door.
Wierenga told WIS she paid her $255 using a debt consolidation loan she'd taken out weeks before.
"If you had an opportunity to sit down with the people in power in the town of Turbeville, what would you tell them in regards to these tickets and the financial burden that's coming with these fines?" Barr asked.
"Maybe they should have a bake sale or something, but I don't feel like it's a good way for people to find out about South Carolina," Wierenga said.
IS THIS LEGAL?
State law requires all law enforcement officers to issue traffic citations on a Uniform Traffic Ticket. This is a charging document that must include a defendant's name, address, driver's license number, date of birth, vehicle owner's identification, the state law being broken, as well as the section number that identifies the specific law that's being charged.
In Turbeville, the town's police force is using the UTT to charge drivers, but there is no state law on the ticket.
In Turbeville, you won't be charged for speeding under the state's speeding laws. Since 2003, drivers have been charged under the town speeding ordinance, 13-22. That ordinance provides a fine structure that is much higher than fines provided under state law, but the town promises not to give license points from the people charged under this ordinance.
When we went to Turbeville on Sept. 2, we watched Chief David Jones issue multiple drivers town tickets, which he prints from a printer installed in his police cruiser. Jones patrols the town's 45 and 35 mile an hour speed zones, which are enforced at the town limits.
The state-mandated speed limit outside of the town limits on Highway 378 is 60 miles an hour. Many drivers we spoke with described the sudden speed reduction through Turbeville as a "speed trap."
Once TPD officers stop vehicles, they enter the driver's license information into a laptop inside the cruiser, then print the UTT. The officer types "Town Ordinance" into the section provided for the violation description, and enters the town's ordinance number "13-22" where the state's speeding code should go. Since the ordinance doesn't specify "speeding" as the crime, officers hand write the speed on the ticket with black marker.
Some legal experts think Turbeville could be stepping outside the powers afforded to local government with the way it's chosen to charge speeders inside town limits.
"Turbeville's like a troll at a bridge, you've got to write a big ol' check to just get on by," Columbia attorney Todd Kincannon said.
Kincannon's arguments before the state Supreme Court in 2010 helped defeat a helmet law the city of Myrtle Beach passed. The state already had a helmet law on the books, but Myrtle Beach city council enacted an ordinance to modify the state's law to require all bikers to wear helmets inside the city limits.
The state's top justices struck Myrtle Beach's helmet law down and the city had to refund fines paid under the city's ordinance.
"You guys are writing these municipal ordinances every day of the week?" Barr asked Chief David Jones.
"Yes, sir, that's correct," Jones said.
"Why not just stick with the state law?" WIS asked.
"Because it's a town ordinance, "Jones said.
"So,you're saying I need to set aside one law to enforce another? What's the difference?" Jones asked.
"So, what's stopping the city from going in and saying we'll have our own DUI law, we'll have our own seat belt law?" Barr asked.
"State law stops that," Jones explained.
Kincannon has harsh words to describe the ticket process in the town.
"It tells me it's a scam. It tells me the city of Turbeville has come up with a revenue-generating scheme as opposed to enforcing traffic laws; that's what's going on here," Kincannon said.
The state Attorney General's Office told WIS there has never been a case in South Carolina challenging ticketing practices like what we found in Turbeville. No public official has ever asked for an opinion from the attorney general about Turbeville's ticket practice, either.
We were able to track down an April 23, 2013 letter from South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal addressing town's with ordinances similar to what's going on in Turbeville. The letter is from Toal to the chief of the state's Criminal Justice Academy, Hubert Harrell. In the letter Toal wrote, "The creation of other criminal ordinances which address acts that are already addressed by state law, could possibly run afoul of the authority delegated to them under the Home Rule Act."
The letter indicated that if someone chose to sue Turbeville over the municipal ticketing practice, a court could decide whether the town is justified in charging drivers with a law that's already enforced by state statute.
But, Toal recognized because of Turbeville's no point promise, those charged may never speak up, "Due to the 'benefits' defendants are told they are receiving, such a challenge is unlikely."
So what would Kincannon argue in the Supreme Court if this case ever came up?
"I would tell the justices that South Carolina state law has a standard here and Turbeville and every other city and county in this state has to follow that," he said.
So is Turbeville's police chief prepared to face a lawsuit?
"We don't have any choice but to face it, if someone files a lawsuit we've got to answer it, is that correct?" Jones said.
But what would be the chief's answer to the court?
"I don't know, sir," Jones said.
TURBEVILLE'S REASON EXPLAINED
Jones told WIS the reason his town council passed its own speeding law was to "shock the conscience" of the people they charge. Jones further explained the impacts of fines as high as $500 and potential jail time would make the streets inside the town of Turbeville safer.
"If you knew on the way down from Columbia if you got stopped, you were looking at a fine of $288 or $388 and that was it, I guarantee you wouldn't be so quick to push down on that accelerator pedal," Jones said. "It should shock the conscience, shouldn't it?"
When questioned as whether Turbeville's ticketing practices were strictly a way to generate money, Jones denied it.
"We're trying to make these roads safer," said Jones. "Just like I told you, should it be something reasonable or should it shock your conscience?"
WHAT'S NEXT FOR TURBEVILLE?
Several drivers we spoke with during this investigation told us they would consider filing a lawsuit against the town to challenge the authority of the town's speeding ordinance.
The state's chief justice has warned towns like Turbeville, which may be issuing similar tickets, they could be in violation of the state's Home Rule Act. The act went in to effect in 1975, which gives municipalities and counties the right to self govern.
The Attorney General's Office could also issue an opinion in the Turbeville case, which would offer analysis of similar court decisions, coupled with analyzing the state's constitution for municipalities and counties that have attempted to create similar laws. The opinion has no legal binding, but could offer the office's legal analysis of whether Turbeville has the power to do what it's doing.
A third option would be for the legislature to investigate whether Turbeville has the power to issue speeding tickets outside of the state's speeding laws, then possibly create a law banning the practice across the state.
In Chief Justice Jean Toal's April 2013 letter to the state's police academy, Toal alluded to the fact that there may currently be no legal answer right now as to the ticketing practices in Turbeville, "Of course, this matter could be considered by our legislature and, if determined to be inappropriate, rectified by legislative enactment."