Atlanta's ticket traps: slow down or pay up

Cpl. John Lowe of the Doraville police department writes a speeding ticket for a driver he clocked at 51 mph in a 35 zone. On a per capita basis, Doraville generates the highest revenue from traffic tickets of any jurisdiction in metro Atlanta.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Speed trap laws

Several state laws have been passed to prevent cities and counties from policing for profit:

  • No officer may make a case using a speed detection device, unless you're driving more than 10 mph over the speed limit. Exceptions: school zones, properly marked historic and residential districts.
  • No county sheriff, county or city can use speed detection devices where any arresting officer or court official is paid on a fee system.
  • Officers using a radar device must test it for accuracy and record and maintain the results of the test at the beginning and end of each shift. Any radar unit not meeting the accuracy requirements must be recalibrated.
  • Counties or cities using radar must erect signs on state highways at the city or county border to warn approaching motorists that speed detection devices are in use. Radar can't be used within 500 feet of any such warning sign.
  • On all state highways, cities and counties must post signs at their borders warning drivers that the speed limit will decrease. The signs must be plainly visible from every lane of traffic in any traffic conditions. No speed detection devices shall be used within 500 feet of any such warning sign.
  • Law enforcement officers using radar from their vehicle must be within the view of approaching motorists for a distance of at least 500 feet.
  • Police cannot use speed detection devices highways that have a grade (an incline or decline) in excess of 7 percent.
  • There is a presumption that a law enforcement agency is using speed detection devices for purposes other than the promotion of the public safety if the fines levied for speeding offenses exceed 40 percent of that law enforcement agency's budget. However, fines for speeding in excess of 17 miles per hour over the established speed limit are not considered when calculating total speeding-fine revenue for the agency.

The state has suspended or revoked a police department’s permit to use speed detection devices seven times since 2007:

  • Police in Jacksonville, a town of 137 in Telfair County, were found this year to be using speed detection devices without a state permit. They were ordered to stop and may not obtain a permit for one year.
  • McDonough Police Department was suspended on March 31 for the remainder of the year for operating a speed detection device on unauthorized roads. The problem was corrected and the permit reinstated in August.
  • Police in Danielsville, a town of 560 just north of Athens, received a 60-day suspension in 2013 for failure to conduct accuracy checks on their radar devices and using them on unauthorized roadways.
  • Crawfordville Police Department received a 90-day suspension in 2012 for failure to conduct accuracy checks and failure to maintain radar logs.
  • Stone Mountain Police Department received a one-year suspension in 2012 for operating speed detection devices without annual calibration certification.
  • Leslie Police Department had its permit revoked in 2008 because its part-time police force did not provide 24-hour coverage, a requirement for having a speed detection permit.
  • Milner Police Department had its permit revoked in 2007 for the same reason.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

The AJC’s analysis was based on a 5 percent surcharge collected by the state on every traffic ticket. The surcharge goes into a Driver Education Training Fund. We calculated the total revenue collected by each jurisdiction between 2008 and 2012, and then divided by the population to create a basis for comparison.

Revenue totals from 2013 were discarded because they could not be calculated accurately. The state lowered the surcharge from 5 to 1.5 percent effective May 6, 2013. However, local governments did not indicate which amounts were collected before and after the surcharge change to the Georgia Superior Court Clerks Cooperative Authority in monthly reports that year.

It’s not possible to make a statewide comparison of ticket revenues based on traffic volume. There is no comprehensive database showing the amount of daily traffic that passes through each local government.

As he drives west on I-285 toward his job in Cobb County, Jason Bell often sees Doraville police cruisers lying in wait for speeders.

On May 4 they caught him — 79 in a 55. He says he was just going with the flow of traffic at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday, something that’s not hard to believe about the top-end Perimeter.

In fact, when it comes to traffic tickets, he was nailed by one of the most aggressive police forces in the state. Doraville police write an average of 40 tickets a day, most of them on the city’s 2.7-mile stretch of I-285. The city collects more traffic fines per capita than any other in metro Atlanta, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found. It also devotes nearly half the city budget to police department operations.

The AJC examined five years of traffic fines paid in every police jurisdiction in Georgia, more than 500 cities and counties, and has set up a searchable database online on which any driver in Georgia can look up total fine receipts in any city or county. It then established how much each jurisdiction was collecting according to the number of people who live there. By that calculation, the worst “ticket traps” are in rural Georgia — including a string of cities and counties along I-75 in South Georgia that tap Disney-bound tourists and other pass-through traffic to fill their treasuries.

But metropolitan Atlanta has a number of aggressive traffic enforcers. Led by Doraville, others include Morrow, Jonesboro, Pine Lake and Avondale Estates.

The large metro jurisdictions actually collected at or below the metro Atlanta average of about $116 in the AJC’s per capita analysis.But those governments still rake in huge piles of cash from drivers: DeKalb took in $84 million in traffic fines for the five years the AJC studied, by far the most for any single jurisdiction in Georgia; Atlanta netted $50.6 million; Gwinnett, $42.9 million.

Doraville officials say the department’s 46 officers are not writing an outlandish number of tickets, considering the amount of traffic that flows through the city.

“Every city is unique,” City Manager Shawn Gillen said. “It’s probably very difficult to do comparisons. But we feel our level of traffic enforcement is extremely reasonable relative to the traffic counts that we have.”

Of course, one person’s speed trap is another person’s traffic enforcement. Police departments say disgruntled drivers often accuse them falsely of operating a trap — after those drivers are stopped for driving recklessly. Drivers are more apt to describe ticket traps as places where cops stop motorists not because their driving is unsafe, but because they are policing for profit.

Whatever their motives, many local governments are reaping huge rewards from traffic enforcement, the AJC’s analysis shows. Several metro Atlanta cities are collecting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars per year — and many times more than the state average for per capita revenue.

Doraville, a city of 10,600, took in nearly $9 million in traffic fines between 2008 and 2012; Jonesboro, with 4,700 people, netted $3 million during the same period.

Roswell: 94,000 people, $9 million in fines; Doraville: 10,600 people, $9 million in fines

There’s no doubt that the four square miles encompassed by Doraville are bustling.

I-285, Buford Highway and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard all wend through the city, carrying a total of 363,000 vehicles per day, according to state Department of Transportation estimates.

But even anecdotally, Doraville appears to be an outlier when it comes to ticket revenue.

Doraville collected almost the same amount of total ticket revenue as Roswell, a city with a population nine times larger.

Like Doraville, Roswell is burdened with heavy traffic, including a portion of Ga. 400. At least 270,000 vehicles travel on Ga. 400, Holcomb Bridge Road, Alpharetta Highway and Mansell Road each day.

Roswell Police Chief Rusty Grant says his traffic officers don’t spend much time on Ga. 400. They focus more on local roads where citizens have complained about reckless driving, “as opposed to just sitting in a place where they can generate a lot of tickets or income for the city,” Grant said.

Last year, the Roswell Police Department’s 143 officers issued 11,435 citations.

By contrast, the Doraville Police Department with a force one-third that size issued 14,560 traffic tickets last year — an average of three tickets per officer per shift, Gillen said. A majority of those were written on I-285, officials said.

‘They’re up on I-285, dialing for dollars’

Willy Burns, of Atlanta, who was stopped in May on I-285 for speeding and subsequently cited for driving with a suspended license, griped after paying his $1,407 fine in July. “With the number of cars coming through, traveling to and from other places, they’re going to get some money out of that,” he said.

Doraville Police John King is well aware of the city’s ticket trap reputation. King said he has fought to change that perception in recent years by abolishing the traffic unit and diverting more attention to neighborhood policing. He said officers don’t even issue speeding tickets unless a driver is traveling more than 20 mph over the speed limit.

But former Doraville councilman Tom Hart, who lost a mayoral bid in 2011, said too much of the city’s money is sucked up by police services that don’t really serve the average citizen. The 46 percent of its budget that Doraville devotes to police is the second-highest among more than two dozen metro Atlanta jurisdictions (barely trailing Jonesboro at 47 percent).

“They are not in the neighborhoods,” complained Hart, who remains active in city politics. “They’re up on I-285, on Buford Highway and those other roads dialing for dollars.”

Doraville police could soon expand their turf to include Spaghetti Junction — and the 421,000 vehicles per day that traverse it — if Doraville voters opt to annex the enormous interchange in a referendum in November.

‘We are here to enforce the traffic laws of the state’

Frank Rotondo, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said he wouldn’t be surprised to learn ticket traps still exist in Georgia. But he said they are probably more likely to be in smaller towns and counties.

“I am firm in my belief that (law enforcement agencies) in metro Atlanta area are doing it for the right reason,” said Rotondo. “Doraville I don’t believe is (issuing tickets) incorrectly. I believe they need that enforcement there.”

There’s no state law or police best practice that says how much ticket revenue is too much.

But if traffic fines exceed 10 percent of a local government’s revenue, Rotondo said, that is “a reasonable indicator that you should look further” at traffic enforcement tactics. It could be a sign that the city is too reliant on ticket income to boost its bottom line.

The AJC compared data that local governments are required to report annually to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs on their annual revenue and found 53 cities and counties where ticket revenue accounted for more a tenth of overall income. Doraville was among them at 17 percent in 2012, as well as Lithonia (18 percent), Jonesboro (15 percent), Riverdale (14 percent) and Pine Lake and Avondale Estates (12 percent).

In Jonesboro, which also ranked third-highest in the AJC’s population-adjusted analysis, Police Chief Franklin Allen said the take from traffic revenue is reasonable because of the city’s high traffic.

Allen said his 26 officers wrote 5,736 tickets last year — an average of about 16 tickets per day. His aim in traffic enforcement is not to fill city coffers, he said.

“We are here to enforce the traffic laws of the state, to prevent or reduce crashes, accidents, safety violations and to make the streets safer for all the other commuters,” Allen said.

Sometimes a single unusual factor can explain a city’s high ranking in per capita ticket revenue. In 2011, the state built a bridge over I-75 at Ga. 54 in Morrow. City police wrote an unusually large number of tickets in the construction zone — and speeding in a work zone generally doubles the fine.

Ticket revenue for 2011 was nearly double what it was in other years before or since.

There ought to be a law -- and there is

Ticket traps in Georgia are nothing new.

Ludowici, just north of Brunswick, was a notorious speed trap in the 1960s. So much so that then-Gov. Lester Maddox erected billboards warning motorists to stay away.

That city’s rampant abuses helped spur legislative reforms. Georgia now has several laws designed to protect drivers from being fleeced by opportunistic police departments. But they’re all primarily aimed at overzealous speed enforcement.

For example, speeding fines may not account for more than 40 percent of a police department’s budget. But speeding tickets issued for traveling in excess of 17 mph cannot be factored into that equation. Some police chiefs interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said they don’t even write speeding tickets for less than 20 mph over the limit.

And police departments aren’t required to report how much income they generate from speeding tickets. So there’s no way for the state to easily determine which departments might be violating that law without conducting a special audit.

Audits are only conducted when someone complains about unscrupulous speed enforcement to the Georgia Department of Public Safety.

Since 2007, the department has investigated complaints against 183 law enforcement agencies. It has suspended or revoked an agency’s permit to operate a speed detection seven times. However, the state hasn’t found any local government guilty of violating the narrowly tailored 40 percent rule since 1995., according to the Department of Public Safety.

The AJC found several instances where cities that are well-known ticket traps eluded the state definition of a speed trap based on the 40 percent rule.

Meanwhile, police departments can rack up as much ticket revenue as they want from other moving and equipment violations (expired tags, unlawful U-turns, broken brake lights or following too closely).

‘Police are good on the witness stand’

The deck is stacked against motorists who try to challenge an unfair traffic ticket, says defense lawyer Eric Coffelt, who handles traffic court cases. So much so that most drivers often find it’s not worth their time to fight citations in court.

“When it’s your word against the officer’s, it’s just very difficult to prove some of these defenses that you might actually have to a ticket,” Coffelt said. “Many police witnesses are very good on the witness stand.”

In Jonesboro traffic court on Sept. 18, Aisha Whitehead made a fruitless attempt to challenge a speeding ticket for going 52 mph in a 35 mph zone. Whitehead, 34, insisted she had a slow-leaking tire and was headed to a repair shop when the officer stopped her. She said she could not have been speeding on the tire, and produced photographs and a receipt for repair.

The judge found Whitehead guilty and imposed a $255 fine.

Whitehead said she wasn’t surprised that Jonesboro police ranked among the highest per capita revenue generators in the AJC’s analysis.

“A lot of people don’t even like to come to my house because of all the police cars around here,” said Whitehead, who lives in Jonesboro.

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