TURBEVILLE, SC (WIS) - Last fall, a WIS investigation uncovered a years-long speeding ticket practice in Turbeville that the state attorney general's office said should not be happening. The town created its own speeding law that does not follow the state's Uniform Traffic Code and charges fines hundreds of dollars higher than the state law allows.
On Labor Day 2013, we watched Turbeville Police Chief David Jones ticket several drivers and charge them under the town's speeding ordinance, which gives drivers no choice but to pay fines up to $588 in exchange for no points on their licenses. The problem is, the town sends its tickets in to the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles and the violation is placed on a driving record.
Insurance companies see those violations and WIS has heard from drivers who have seen their insurance rates increase after thinking the Turbeville ticket would not impact their driving record and insurance rates.
Days after our investigation into Turbeville's speeding fines aired in October, State Treasurer Curtis Loftis and Rep. Jimmy Bales wrote Attorney General Alan Wilson asking for an opinion on whether Turbeville had the authority to enforce speeding laws outside of what state law already covers. The attorney general's office issued two separate opinions on Nov. 18, outlining the law that gives towns the power to enforce state law.
In the opinion, the attorney general is clear that Turbeville's speeding ordinance and others like it across the state are "invalid."
"Local governments lack the authority to enact ordinances which impose lesser or greater penalties for traffic violations than those imposed by the UTA (Uniform Traffic Act)," the opinion states. The attorney general's opinion states it was derived from a S.C. Supreme Court interpretation of Article VIII of the South Carolina Constitution.
In a 2006 attorney general opinion, the office determined "A charter or ordinance cannot lower or be inconsistent with a standard set by law…even where the scope of municipal power is concurrent with that of the state…an ordinance may not conflict with or operate to nullify state law."
Turbeville's ordinance nullifies the section of the UTC that requires a point penalty when a driver pleads guilty to a traffic conviction. The S.C. Highway Patrol's fine structure with court assessments are:
$81.50 for 1-9 miles an hour above the speed limit
$133 for 10-15 miles an hour above the speed limit
$185 for 16-24 miles an hour above the speed limit
$380 for 25 miles an hour above the speed limit
The UTC also ties a point penalty to each speed range from two points to six. After a driver accumulates six license points, the DMV can suspend a driver's license. After multiple offenses, a S.C. driver could lose their driving privileges.
The problem in Turbeville, there is no point penalty to allow DMV to track bad drivers.
TURBEVILLE LEADERS SHOULD BE "IMPEACHED" OVER TICKET FINES
Our investigation into Turbeville's ordinance got the attention of several lawmakers who told WIS they would work to ban what Turbeville is doing across the state. The Senate Transportation Committee has formed a subcommittee to look at drafting a bill that would ban municipal speeding ordinances that do not follow the state's UTC.
Turbeville Mayor Dwayne Howell told WIS the town wasn't changing the way it punishes speeders until forced to.
"We're sort of waiting for them to tell us and that's not procrastination because we don't know where we are," he said. "If all of a sudden I said, 'we're going to change everything now,' we're admitting guilt to something we don't think we're guilty for."
We interviewed Howell Jan. 13 following a council meeting and handed him the attorney general's opinions. Howell told us he'd give the opinions to the town's attorney to review.
State lawmakers, including Bales, have firmed behind the attorney general's opinion. However, since Howell has said he's waiting for the state to ban the practice, Bales says the message from Turbeville is clear.
"It says the mayor can't read," responded Bales. "He should have read that opinion and it says clearly this is illegal and I think they ought to be impeached."
Bales is working with state House of Representatives attorneys to draft a bill banning Turbeville's ticket law.
"If you break the law and you speed, you should pay a reasonable fine which the state provides. But, you should not be held up. This is highway robbery," Bales said. "I urge anyone who's been fined these outrageous amounts, get a lawyer and sue and I believe they'll win."
The fines we found Turbeville charging speeders ranged from the lowest of $288 up to a high of $588. The lowest we saw Judge Lucy Coleman reduce a fine to was $255.
We attended a Turbeville town court session on Jan. 9. There were several people in court with speeding tickets, all charged under the town's speeding ordinance. None of the drivers were offered to plead guilty to the state's UTC.
"You're being charged under our town ordinance in lieu of being charged with a six-point violation," Coleman told driver after driver. Coleman's next question was, "How do you plead?"
"Those people are clearly being ripped off because the state law should apply and they should be allowed the benefit of--it's usually a penalty $81.88 for a two point ticket and not have to pay $400 or $500," former U.S. Attorney-turned defense attorney Pete Strom. "That's a problem."
Strom read the same attorney general opinion we delivered Mayor Howell on Jan. 13. Strom said the opinion couldn't be more clear.
"According to state law in South Carolina, you cannot enforce this type of ordinance because it's illegal per se, which means it's illegal on its face," Strom said.
But, the steps the legislature could take may not be the worst of Turbeville's troubles. Strom said Turbeville officers are putting themselves at risk with every ticket they write.
"It's very clear, based on this opinion, interpreting the statutes that our legislature's passed and the governor signed, it's illegal to do that," he said. "In fact, the officers are potentially committing a crime doing it as part of their police practice."
In a Jan. 24 email, Turbeville's mayor stood behind his statement that the town wouldn't change anything until the state forced it to.
"I have read the information that you left with me. The attorney general states that it is beyond the scope of his office to make an opinion because it must be answered on a case-by-case basis. Therefore I certainly can't form an opinion. We have sent this information to the town's attorney for his review. It seems to me that the General Assembly needs to clarify the law so that it can be understood by everyone," Howell wrote.
This week, the Senate Transportation Committee assigned Sen. Greg Hembree, Sen. Chip Campsen, Sen. Yancey McGill, Sen. Danny Verdin and Sen. Thomas McElveen to investigate the issue. That subcommittee is working to schedule its first hearing.