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WIS Investigation: SC town's speeding penalties subject of legislative investigation

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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) – A WIS investigation into how the town of Turbeville, South Carolina is punishing speeders has caught the attention of a powerful senate committee.

Turbeville charges drivers under a town speeding ordinance instead of the state speeding law. This allows the town to offer drivers a ticket with no point penalties in exchange for fines of up to $500 or 30 days in jail.

Since airing this series a few weeks ago, we went to 12 municipalities that viewers told us were offering the same no point deal as Turbeville. What we found was Turbeville is not alone in offering the no point penalties, but the town stands alone with the fines it is charging speeders.

SC TOWNS CREATING OWN LAW TO PUNISH SPEEDERS

Speed limits across the state are supposed to be enforced under South Carolina's uniform traffic code. The code was established to make speeding penalties and fines the same across the state. But, our investigation discovered speeding fines and penalties vary from town to town.

Under Turbeville's speeding ordinance, the town can charge speeders a fine of up to $500 for driving faster than 10 miles above the posted limit. The ticket Turbeville officers issue on scene has a "Recommended Bond" of $388 and is usually the fine a driver pays to plead guilty to the violation. The $388 is double the amount that most towns we investigated charge for the same violation.

The Aiken County town of Salley also charges drivers under a municipal ordinance titled: "Thoughtless Operation." The charge allows drivers to pay a $237.50 fine in exchange for not assessing a point violation to a speeder's license. The same fine in the town of Turbeville would run between $388 and $500.

In January, Elizabeth Wood was ticketed by Salley Police Chief J.D. Bledsoe for driving 51 in a 30. "He assured me it wasn't a big deal because there would be no points on my driver's license and if I wanted to come see him before court and pay it off, I wouldn't even have to come to court," Wood told WIS.

"He said don't worry about it, it's not a big deal, you wouldn't get any points. I said, '$237 might not be a big deal to you, but it is to me,'" Wood said. Wood said she was driving out of the town's 30 miles an hour zone and was yards away from the 55 miles an hour sign when she started speeding up. That's when she saw Bledsoe's blue lights.

Our investigation discovered no point municipal ordinances being charged in the following towns. These figures were compiled from each town's clerk's office or by a representative in town hall:

-Swansea: $237.50

-Heath Springs: $153

-Greeleyville: $188

-Wagener: $185.63

-Hartsville: $255

-Lynchburg: $255

-Summerton: $188

-Society Hill: $255

-Andrews: $255

-South Congaree: $190.75

-West Columbia: $188

The state's uniform traffic code requires all towns to follow the fine structure the legislature implemented under title 56-5-1520; the section that spells out a driver's punishment for breaking the state's speed limits. The following scale is used by the South Carolina Highway Patrol in determining maximum speeding fines:

-Under 10 miles an hour: $25 plus assessments

-10 to 15 miles an hour: $50 plus assessments

-15 to 25 miles an hour: $75 plus assessments

-25 and up: $200 plus assessments

Under the state fine schedule, a four point violation at 10-15 over the posted limit would end up costing $133 after court assessments are tacked onto the $50 ticket. In Turbeville, that same ticket would cost a driver $288. In Turbeville, a speeder is charged $388 for driving more than 15 over the limit. If the town was following the state's fine schedule, that $388 ticket would cost a speeder $185 and four points with court assessments included.  

NO POINT TICKETS MAKING SC ROADS DANGEROUS

Mayor Bob Salley was on Salley Town Council and voted to pass the town's "Thoughtless Operation" ordinance several years ago. The ordinance allows the town to enforce the state's speeding laws, but instead of charging the state's fines and point penalties, Salley's court system offers drivers a deal. It's the same set up as in Turbeville, but without the higher fines.

A four point ticket in town will cost a driver $237.50, but won't assess any points against a driver's license. The state Department of Motor Vehicles uses the point system to track bad drivers and to take a driver's license after a certain number of points show up on a driving record. Tickets like this prevent DMV officials from keeping track of bad drivers.

"The points system was put in place for public safety. Once you take that out and try to extract more money out of a motorist, then you have to ask yourself, is this about public safety or is this about generating revenue?" State Senator Larry Grooms told WIS. Grooms, a Berkeley County lawmaker, chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

Grooms emailed WIS days after our investigation into Turbeville's ticketing practices aired. Grooms said he would make sure lawmakers investigated Turbeville's speeding penalties and would look at rewriting state law to stop it.

Grooms sees what's happening in Turbeville, and towns using no point ordinances, as strictly a way to generate revenue. "It doesn't look right on face value and we have a history in South Carolina of sometimes small towns overstepping its boundaries," said Grooms.

"We get less than 50 percent and the thing of it is, we pay all of the expense," Salley told WIS when asked about the town's decision to create its own speeding penalties. Salley said the ordinance is a way for towns like his to make money, while continuing to enforce the state's speeding laws. Salley said his town's ordinance isn't taking anything away from public safety, "The tickets are sent to the state highway department; the state definitely has access to them."

Turbeville Police Chief David Jones told WIS his town's punishment for speeders had nothing to do with making money. "We're trying to make these roads safer, just like I told you, should it be something reasonable or should it shock your conscience?" said Jones.

But not all small towns are dodging the penalties laid out in state law. The Orangeburg County town of North has the perfect set up to establish its own speed trap. State Highway 321 and 178 intersect in the heart of North, with thousands of drivers passing through the town every day.

"Morally, I feel like we should be out fairly and impartially enforcing traffic laws," North Police Chief Mark Fallaw said. "We have a tax base to fund the police department and to fund the water and sewer and to fund administration, so we do that through the general fund so we don't use any means of law enforcement to try to collect money for that."

North is sandwiched between two towns that use the no point speeding ordinance: Swansea and Salley. But, Fallaw said he's sticking with the state law the General Assembly passed as a way to keep his town's speeding penalties compliant with the uniform traffic code. Fallaw said he made it clear to his council when they hired him 12 years ago, that he wasn't turning his police force into a revenue-generating operation. "If that were the option the town chose, I think I would have a hard time swallowing that, but thank goodness they don't," said Fallaw.

TURBEVILLE MAYOR CONSIDERS CHANGING TOWN'S SPEEDING PENALTIES

We interviewed Turbeville Police Chief David Jones on September 11, one week after watching him issue $288 and $388 town speeding tickets to drivers making their way to Interstate 95 from Myrtle Beach. Jones defended his town's speeding fines, which are among the highest in the state.

Jones told WIS, the fines were meant to "shock the conscience" of drivers who speed through Turbeville. The problem with that logic is, the vast majority of the drivers the department tickets don't live anywhere near Turbeville, and may only pass through the town once a year.

Turbeville Mayor Dwayne Howell was supposed to tape part in the September 11 interview, but did not attend. Jones said Howell had "a prior obligation" and didn't realize it when he initially agreed to talk with us about his town's speeding ordinance. We aired our first investigative series without hearing from the mayor, but this time we took additional measures to get him on the record.

We called Howell's home and left a message with his wife. Howell never returned our call. The following day we placed a second call to Howell's home and left a second message on his answering machine. That call was never returned. On September 25, we went to Turbeville Town Hall and found Howell in his office.

Howell made it clear from the start that he wasn't on council when the speeding ordinance first went into effect in 2003. But, Howell acknowledged that he was aware of our investigation into his town's punishment of speeders. "Any interest in changing that ordinance or just let it be?" Barr asked Howell. "Personally, whatever council wants to do is what we'll do. I'm one of five because we're a weak mayor here and I only vote to break a tie," Howell explained.

"How about you personally as mayor; if you had a tie breaking vote would you vote to end this ordinance," Barr asked. "I'd probably vote to keep it the way it is," Howell said.

"We're doing two things for us. We're making this community a little bit safer, I think, I hope. And we are generating revenue for this town," Howell told WIS. "If you lived here, you would see what we're talking about and it does generate revenue for the community; there's no question about that."

Howell pointed out that a four-lane highway runs through the middle of Turbeville and poses a danger to the businesses and the people who live there. The state regulates the speed limit through town, which is 30 miles an hour through the business district, then increasing to 45 miles an hour before returning to 60 miles an hour just outside the town limits.

We showed Howell evidence that his town was charging the highest speeding fines of any of the 12 municipalities we visited across the state during this investigation.

We compared Turbeville's 2012-2013 court fine assessments to West Columbia's assessments for the same year. Turbeville employs four officers, which means most of the time only one officer is writing tickets. For 2012-2013, Turbeville turned in $586,170 in assessments to the State Treasurer's Office. West Columbia—who also has a town speeding ordinance—estimates it paid in $170,000 in assessments during 2012-2013. West Columbia has a police force of more than 50 officers and a traffic unit that targets traffic violations every day of the week. Turbeville's traffic counts are high along Highway 378 during peak tourist travel days. West Columbia also has multiple four lane state highways and Interstate 26 running through it.

"Would you make a motion to reduce it (speeding fines) and get in line with the state fines," Barr asked Mayor Howell. "We could consider something like that, yes," Howell replied. "Would you," Barr asked. "Certainly I will—if we're that far out of line I think we probably need to take a look at that," Howell said.  

LEGISLATIVE INVESTIGATION AND POSSIBLE LAW CHANGE COMING

When Senator Larry Grooms returns to Columbia in January and begins work on the new legislative session, Turbeville will be one of the priorities on the Senate Transportation Committee. "We need to have uniformity across our state with the enforcement of out traffic laws," committee chairman Larry Grooms said. "Our traffic laws need to be uniform across this state and so does the enforcement and so do the fines."

"If one municipality or even a county or one region of the state is not doing what's done across the state, then we have a problem. We need to take a look and the problem needs to be addressed," Grooms said.

In 2011, Grooms' committee started working to figure out whether the town of Ridgeland's use of traffic cameras to ticket speeders along Interstate 95 was lawful. The practice, according to Grooms, was purely one to generate revenue for the town and offered no public safety benefit to drivers. "Ridgeland was simply using a traffic camera system to do the job an officer should have done," Grooms said, "What we saw there was a town joining a private company to mail drivers speeding tickets just so they could split the money they were making."

On June 18, 2011 the governor signed a law that required officers to hand deliver citations to drivers within an hour of catching a violation. That requirement ultimately banned Ridgeland's traffic camera operation.

Grooms said he sees trouble in Turbeville's decision to create its own speeding penalties when state law already provides a punishment for the crime. "We'll take a look at what Turbeville's doing," said Grooms. "We'll compare that to the law. We'll compare that with what other municipalities and what's occurring statewide and if it's not uniform and if they're doing something that's across the line of what's legal or pushing up to it, we'll take some corrective actions, absolutely."

Lawmakers return to Columbia in January. Grooms said he plans to start a legislative investigation into Turbeville's speeding penalties before then.

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